A few 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have proposed creating a sectoral collective bargaining system in the United States, or plan to rewrite the law forcing unions to negotiate solely with their employers.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed “most pro-worker member of the United States Congress,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a former labor-side lawyer, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, all have pitched ideas to create a system where workers could bargain industry-wide across the United States.
“As President, Bernie will work with the trade union movement to establish a system of sectoral bargaining that will establish a floor of minimum wages and benefits across an entire industry, similar to what already takes place across Europe,” according to a statement from Sanders’ campaign. “In a sectoral bargaining system, a collective bargaining agreement could cover all teachers, all autoworkers, all nurses, etc. Under this plan, unions will still have the power to negotiate benefits above and beyond the minimums set by the sectoral collective bargaining agreement for their workplace.”
Bullock’s plan said he will “fight for universal sectoral bargaining that sets a floor for wages, benefits, and working conditions for workers in different economic sectors — including independent contractors.”
Buttigieg’s “New Rising Tide” plan includes provisions to “enshrine the right to multi-employer bargaining.”
Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry has called for a sectoral bargaining-type system in America. The SEIU is the second-largest union in the country.
Henry recently said workers should “be allowed to organize and bargain across geographies, industries and occupations.”
“Bargaining by industry, where workers from multiple companies sit across a table from the largest employers in their industry to negotiate nationwide for wages and benefits, is standard practice in almost every developed country in the world,” said Henry, in the speech acquired by The Washington Post.
Sectoral bargaining differs from enterprise bargaining, which is traditionally used in the United States.
With an enterprise collective bargaining system, union members can collectively bargain within the workplace, according to the Institute of Employment Rights.
But with sectoral collective bargaining, workers could unionize all of their workers nationwide, rather than unionizing one company at a time.
The Center for American Progress Action Fund lays out a three-step plan to promote sectoral bargaining in the United States.
The first step calls on policymakers to strengthen unions and give them the power to bring multiple employers to the bargaining table. The second step asks policymakers to expand contract extension laws, which can ensure all employers in a particular sector give workers similar wages and benefits.
The final step is to create wage boards, or governmental bodies that bring together workers, employers and the public to set minimum standards for jobs in particular regions or industries.
“Sectoral bargaining would raise wages and benefits for most American workers, significantly reduce economic inequality, and help close pay gaps between women and men and between workers of color and white workers,” according to the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Increasing sectoral bargaining requires three coordinated categories of reforms — those that strengthen unions, those that extend the benefits of union contracts, and those that create a bargaining table when none exists.”
Fans of sectoral collective bargaining claim the system encourages participation in unions.
Sixty percent of workers in the EU are unionized, according to worker-particpation.eu, while the union membership rate in the United States was at 10.5 percent in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Jane McAlevey, The Nation’s strikes correspondent, warns sectoral bargaining will only work if workers are invested in the change.
She said the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act made it possible for autoworkers to unionize nationwide in the 1940s and ’50s, which worked at the time.
The editorial board argued significant changes in labor laws will be necessary to shift power back toward workers, and that it will take several ideas — higher minimum standards, stronger collective bargaining and safety nets — to improve the quality of working-class jobs in the 21st century.
The idea of sectoral bargaining seems like it’s one that may stick around for a while, since it’s been top of mind for some union executives for a big chunk of the 2020 race.
Back in February, attendees at the “Future of Unions” conference were supposed to discuss the future of the U.S. union movement, but it instead turned into a conference on sectoral collective bargaining.
By Paige Godden