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Could labor finally get its day?

The Workplace Democracy Act has yet to gain traction in Congress, but if passed it would shatter the employer-employee dynamic in Madison.

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

For more than 25 years, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been trying and failing to pass his Workplace Democracy Act (WDA), a proposed labor law that, among its different forms, would remove obstacles to employers making collective agreements, establish an impartial National Public Employment Relations Commission to support fair collective bargaining, require that pension plans are jointly managed by employee and employer representatives, change the definition of an “employee” to ensure every person who works for other people has labor rights, and repeal all “right-to-work” laws.

Sanders has introduced the bill in Congress no fewer than seven times, with the two most recent attempts — in 2015 and again this spring — co-sponsored by Congressman Mark Pocan, who has represented Wisconsin’s second congressional district, based around Madison, since 2013. U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, who held Pocan’s seat prior to 2013 when she successfully ran to replace Sen. Herb Kohl, is also a co-sponsor. The 2018 version of the bill includes provisions on misrepresenting employee status by employers and repealing right-to-work laws. It left out provisions on pension representation.

To be fair, unless the prevailing political winds in Washington, D.C. undergo a seismic shift in the next couple years, the latest attempt to pass the WDA will most certainly stall again. However, with prominent Wisconsin lawmakers now on board and leading the charge to pass the WDA, IB wondered what if? What if a more favorable Congress passed the WDA and the bill got signed into law by the president? And if enacted, how would local employers and workers be impacted?

Democracy in the eye of the beholder

When Pocan and Sanders announced the introduction of the latest version of the WDA on May 9, they touted the bill as legislation that would strengthen the middle class by restoring workers’ rights to bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.

“Republicans like President Trump and Governor Walker continue to crack down on unions and push a special interest, corporate-driven agenda that makes it harder for middle class families to get ahead,” noted Pocan, who is also a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. “And while they stack the deck against the American worker, unions are fighting to expand economic opportunity and strengthen the middle class. The Workplace Democ-​racy Act restores real bargaining rights to workers and repeals the right-to-work laws like those that Gov. Walker has used to undercut American workers.”

Those strong words were backed by Sanders, a long-time ally of the labor movement.

“We must no longer tolerate CEOs and managers who intimidate, threaten, or fire pro-union workers, who threaten to move plants to China if their workers vote in favor of a union, and who refuse to negotiate a first contract with workers who have voted to join unions,” Sanders said. “If we are serious about reducing income and wealth inequality and rebuilding the middle class, we have got to substantially increase the number of union jobs in this country.”

Pocan and Sanders firmly believe that unions lead to higher wages, better benefits, and a more secure retirement. They note that union workers earn 26 percent more, on average, than non-union workers. Union workers are also half as likely to be victims of health and safety violations or of wage theft, 18 percent more likely to have health coverage, and 23 percent more likely to have either an employer sponsored pension or 401(k).

In their view, the rights of workers to join together and bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions have been severely undermined. Sixty years ago, nearly a third of all workers belonged to a union. Today, that number has gone down to less than 11 percent. When workers become interested in forming unions, 75 percent of private-sector employers hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns, and an employee who engages in union organizing campaigns has a one in five chance of getting fired. With public support for unions at 61 percent, the highest in 15 years, virtually every major union in America has endorsed this legislation.

“Wisconsin has a proud tradition of respecting hard work and rewarding it by giving workers a strong voice,” said Baldwin. “This legislation will strengthen the economic security of working families and move Wisconsin’s tradition of supporting workers forward.”


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