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The boldest and weakest labor platforms of the 2020 Democratic primary

Here’s what Democrats have promised to do for workers.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren delivers doughnuts and coffee to striking supermarket employees outside a Stop & Shop store in Somerville, Massachusetts, on April 12, 2019.
Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Presidential candidates are going all out to win over working-class Americans as they prepare for the fifth Democratic debate.

Most of the Democratic frontrunners are also releasing detailed policy platforms that promise workers everything they’ve ever wanted. Paid parental leave — yes. A $15 minimum wage — check. Paid sick days — done.

And for the first time, most candidates are really paying attention to working women and the challenges they face in the workplace, such as lower pay and few accommodations for pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Sure, not every candidate is promising workers major reform. Some candidates are more interested in incremental changes. But even so, the 2020 Democratic primary election is shaping up to provide the most ambitious blueprint to overhaul US labor laws. And with public frustration toward billionaires and CEOs mounting, it seems like a smart campaign strategy.

“This is our moment to dream big,” Elizabeth Warren said during her campaign announcement event in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a location she picked because of its role as the birthplace of the US labor movement.

Reading the labor platforms for each of the 12 candidates who participated in the fourth Democratic primary debate this month, two groups emerged: the labor reformers and the labor supporters. The frontrunners fall into the first category — Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, as well as Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke, have all put out detailed proposals that would shift the balance of power from businesses to workers. Kamala Harris’s specifically focuses on teachers.

Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang are in the second group; they seem to see themselves more as allies to workers and labor unions, not bringing sweeping change. Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Steyer, meanwhile, don’t have much of a plan to offer workers at all.

Pro-worker legislation that 2020 candidates support

Most of the reformers — Cory Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Sanders Castro, and Warren —explicitly support the following legislation (additional candidates who support these are noted in parentheses), some of which have already passed the House of Representatives.

  • The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would ban “right to work” laws that allow employees to opt out of paying union fees in unionized workplaces, even though they get the benefits of collective bargaining. (Biden, O’Rourke, and Klobuchar support this too.)
  • The Schedules That Work Act, which guarantees predictable schedules for workers, or extra pay if they have to work irregular schedules.
  • The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would bar employers from using an employee’s salary history to determine wages, ensure that workers have the right to discuss wages without retaliation, and require employers to justify any pay discrepancies. (Biden, O’Rourke and Klobuchar support this too.)
  • The Family Act, which guarantees up to 12 weeks of paid family leave to workers, funded through a payroll tax on businesses and employees. (Klobuchar supports this too)
  • The Healthy Families Act, which would require most businesses to provide full-time workers with at least seven days of paid sick leave. (O’Rourke and Klobuchar support this too.)
  • The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act would essentially amend federal labor laws to include domestic workers. But it would also extend new benefits to them, such as guaranteed paid time off, privacy protection, and a written employment contract. (Biden and Klobuchar support this too)
  • The Raise the Wage Act, which gradually raises the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and indexes future increases to wage growth. It also abolishes the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. (O’Rourke and Klobuchar support this too.)

The labor reformers’ platforms

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Biden moved into the labor reformers’ category after he recently released a detailed plan that would increase penalties for labor violations and hold company executives personally liable for interfering in union organizing. Employers who intentionally interfere with unionizing efforts could even face criminal charges. That’s a huge change from the status quo. Right now, employers face zero financial and criminal penalties when they illegally try to discourage workers from forming a labor union.

Here are more highlights:

  • He supports a $15 federal minimum wage, but doesn’t specifically endorse the Raise the Wage Act.
  • He wants to stiffen penalties against companies that misclassify employees as independent contractors.
  • Biden promises to let gig workers and other independent contractors unionize.
  • He wants to give public sector workers the right to unionize under federal law and endorses the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act.
  • He suggests banning noncompete and anti-poaching clauses in employment contracts that make it hard for employees to find better jobs.
  • He wants to ban mandatory arbitration clauses in job contracts, which require workers to waive their right to sue their employer.
  • He supports closing the loophole in federal labor laws that excludes farm workers and domestic workers from getting basic labor protections.
  • Biden promises to create a cabinet-level working group to find ways to boost union membership, such as exploring sectoral bargaining, in which a union negotiates on behalf of workers in an entire industry.

One major difference between Biden’s latest labor plan and other candidates in this category is that Biden doesn’t endorse a specific universal paid parental leave program or guaranteed paid sick days.

Sen. Cory Booker

Booker’s labor platform is thin and somewhat vague, which is an argument for placing him in the “labor supporters” category. But his one signature plan is big enough to shift the balance of power in favor of workers in fundamental ways — the Worker Dividend Act he sponsored in the Senate.

The bill would curb how companies buy back their own stocks, forcing them to give workers a cut. The Worker Dividend Act would mandate that companies buying their own shares must also pay out to their own employees a sum equal to the lesser of either the total value of the buyback or 50 percent of all profits beyond $250 million.

As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias explains, the bill is “a critique of the overall operation of an economic system that people on the left have long argued is systematically broken and stacked against everyone but the very wealthiest Americans.”

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Somewhat surprisingly, Buttigieg has one of the most comprehensive labor platforms, including more than just a wish list from labor unions. He wants to make sure domestic workers and farmworkers are covered by US labor laws, which closes a huge loophole that allows employers to exploit vulnerable workers. He promises paid parental leave, a $15 minimum hourly wage (indexed to wage growth), and to let Uber drivers and other gig workers unionize. Here are some other highlights:

  • He wants stronger, multimillion-dollar penalties for large companies that interfere with union elections.
  • He wants to let McDonald’s employees and other franchise workers bargain collectively with multiple employers at the same time, also known as sectoral bargaining. (Vox’s Dylan Matthews explained that concept, which is common in Europe.)
  • He wants to establish a consistent preference in federal government contracting for unionized employers that provide workers with fair pay and benefits.
  • He backs the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would require businesses to make accommodations for pregnant workers.

Buttigieg also suggests a smart change to temporary visas for foreign workers. High-skilled and low-skilled workers in the US on H-1B or H-2B visas, for example, would no longer be tied to one employer under his proposal. That has been one of the biggest problems with the guest worker programs. Businesses that employ foreign workers end up with too much power over that workforce, making them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Former US housing secretary Julián Castro

Castro just released a new labor platform that focuses on the most vulnerable workers in the US economy: farm workers and domestic workers. Castro says he drew inspiration for his plan from his grandmother, Victoria, who earned a living cleaning houses, cooking and babysitting. His proposal would not only grant basic labor protections to both groups of workers, it would also create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented farm workers.

Here are other highlights:

  • Castro would abolish the current guest worker programs that allow businesses to temporarily import foreign workers during a labor shortage. Employers have a history of abusing these programs and exploiting workers, which Castro points out. In its place, he would create a visa program for farm workers and housekeepers to work in the United States with a path to permanent residency and citizenship.
  • Castro would invest in affordable housing for farm workers and create a land trust to help them buy small farms.
  • He wants to guarantee at least seven days of paid sick leave for all workers at large companies, by passing and building on the Healthy Families Act.
  • He supports at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to be used during pregnancy, new child leave, to care for a sick family member, for recovery from mental or physical illness, or for other family-related reasons.
  • Castro wants to ban discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity by passing and building on the Equality Act.
  • He wants to help close the gender pay gap by protecting workers against retaliation for discussing salaries, preventing employers from requiring salary history, and raising the standard of proof for employers to implement pay disparities by passing and building on the Paycheck Fairness Act.
  • He plans to require corporations to reserve board seats for workers
  • He wants to prohibit businesses from making employees sign non-disclosure agreements, forced arbitration, and non-compete clauses.
  • Castro promises to extend collective bargaining rights to government employees and would make it harder for businesses to misclassify employees as independent contractors.

Sen. Kamala Harris

Harris has focused her labor platform on working women and public schoolteachers, in particular. She supports a $15 minimum wage and wants to create stricter penalties for companies that commit wage theft.

Here are more details from her plan to boost wages for teachers:

  • The average teacher in America would receive a $13,500 raise — an increase of about 23 percent to their base pay.
  • The Department of Education will work with state education agencies to set a base salary goal for beginning teachers in every state. Under Harris’s plan, states and school districts will increase every teacher’s salary until, at a minimum, they meet the goal.
  • America’s highest-need public schools, which disproportionately serve students of color, will receive funding to increase teacher pay even further.
  • Harris would also invest billions to “elevate” the teaching profession, through teacher and principal residencies and early-career mentoring programs. Half of the funding would go to historically black colleges and universities and other institutions that serve ethnic minorities.

All of this would cost about $315 billion, her campaign says, and would be paid for through an estate tax.

  • Harris also supports collective bargaining rights for teachers in all states.

Another, non-teacher highlight in her plan:

  • She wants to require businesses to obtain an equal pay certification that proves they’re not paying women less than men for doing the same work.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke

O’Rourke has a massive labor platform that carefully lays out his plan to boost union membership rates.

  • He wants to guarantee collective bargaining rights for all workers, including government employees, domestic workers, and farmworkers.
  • He’s a believer in sectoral bargaining, which makes it easier for workers and their unions to negotiate with multiple employers in an industry.
  • O’Rourke wants to strengthen the “joint employer” standard so that corporations can’t use outsourcing and franchising to avoid bargaining with them. Unionized workers would be able to bargain with firms that are not their direct employers but still have power over their working conditions (like McDonald’s workers who are employed by a franchise, but whose work is heavily controlled by the corporation).
  • He wants to crack down on the misclassification of gig workers and other workers as independent contractors. O’Rourke plans to tackle misclassification as one of the top enforcement priorities of his Labor Department, and says he supports turning the “ABC test” into law, which would presume workers are employees unless their employers can prove otherwise (similar to California’s AB 5 bill).
  • He wants to establish wage boards in industries with low union membership to deliver immediate wage gains.
  • O’Rourke plans to restore the Obama-era overtime rule. The Obama administration proposed raising the salary threshold that entitles workers to overtime pay — time and a half for work over 40 hours a week — from less than $24,000 to around $50,000. The Trump administration is now seeking to replace the Obama rule with one raising the threshold to less than $36,000.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sanders has done perhaps more than any candidate to move Democrats toward more progressive labor policies. He sponsored the Raise the Wage Act and came out with a dramatic labor platform last month.

As Vox’s Tara Golshan explains, rebuilding union membership is central to Sanders’ platform. His plan outlines a series of executive orders and bills that aim to strengthen union membership, punish employers who engage in union-busting practices, and raise wages and benefits.

Here’s what Sanders is proposing to do, without Congress:

  • End federal contracts with employers that pay workers less than $15 an hour without benefits, pay executives more than 150 times more than average workers, and hire workers to replace striking workers or outsources jobs.
  • Put a moratorium on pension cuts.

Much of Sanders’s plan, like many other candidates’ plans, would require legislation. That includes:

  • Creation of a sectoral collective bargaining system where boards set minimum standards for an entire industry, including minimum pay and benefits
  • Giving all government employees the right to unionize
  • Banning at-will employment, which allows businesses to fire employees at any time and for any reason. This would require companies to fire employees for a “just cause.”
  • Requiring companies to begin negotiating with a union within 10 days of receiving a request, setting up a system of both mediation and binding arbitration if employers try to drag their feet on negotiating a first contract.
  • Repealing the provision in the Taft-Hartley Act that allows states to pass “right to work” laws. Twenty-eight states have these laws on the books, allowing workers to opt out of paying union dues, ultimately weakening the union representation.
  • Codifying the Browning-Ferris joint-employer standard, an Obama-era National Labor Relations Board decision that redefined who technically “employs” US workers by acknowledging an employee can have more than one employer (for example, a temp agency and the company contracting with it could both be one temp worker’s employer), and therefore can participate in collective bargaining.
  • Making it easier for workers to strike. First, the plan gives federal workers the right to strike. Currently, while federal employees are allowed to form a union, they aren’t allowed to strike. The plan supports a ban on employers permanently replacing striking workers. It also backs workers who want to participate in a secondary boycott to pressure their employers around clients or suppliers.

Sanders just released another big plan that would give employees an ownership stake in the companies where they work. It would also require corporations to reserve 45 percent of their board seats for employees. Read Tara Golshan’s explainer here.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren

So far, Warren has one of the most ambitious labor platforms of all the 2020 candidates. She recently released her plan to overhaul US labor laws, which includes a long list of promises to close every loophole and fix every broken policy that has kept working families from getting ahead in the post-recession economy. Oh, and she wants to give workers new rights too, such as the right for gig workers to unionize.

In many ways, Warren’s ideas mirror some of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s proposals, like making it easier for workers to go on strike and letting unions bargain on behalf of an entire industry. But Warren also focuses on the minutiae — the little tweaks and changes that could make a real difference for working Americans.

Here are the highlights:

  • One of the big ideas she’s endorsing is the concept of sectoral bargaining, in which unions bargain not at the company level but at the sector level — negotiating for all workers in an entire industry rather than just one company or workplace.
  • She is also championing one of her signature congressional plans, the Accountable Capitalism Act. It would require billion-dollar corporations to reserve 40 percent of their board seats for employees. Like this, she argues, CEOs would be more likely to make decisions that benefit workers, not just shareholders or the bottom line.
  • She also wants to extend the right to unionize to more types of workers, such as government employees and low-level company supervisors.
  • Warren is also tackling the trifecta of terrible corporate policies that have eroded workers’ rights: non-compete clauses, no-poach agreements, and mandatory arbitration.
  • Not only would Warren push for a national law that would make it much harder for companies to label employees as independent contractors. She says she would also make misclassification a labor violation, instead of a just a tax issue.
  • One key part of Warren’s plan involves boosting funding for agencies that enforce worker safety laws and other labor laws. That includes the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Department of Labor Civil Rights Center.
  • She plans to deny federal contracting opportunities to companies with poor track records on diversity and equal pay, ban contractors from using forced arbitration and noncompete clauses that restrict workers’ rights, and prohibit them from asking applicants for past salary information and criminal histories.

The labor supporters’ platforms

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

Gabbard hasn’t said much about labor issues in her campaign. I could only find two specific labor policies she supports: the Raise the Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which strengthens remedies for workers who have experienced pay discrimination.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Klobuchar has a fairly vague labor platform. Here’s what is says about workers’ rights on her campaign website:

As the granddaughter of an iron ore miner and the daughter of a union teacher and a union newspaperman, Amy will bring one clear but simple guide to the White House: When unions are strong, our country is strong. As President, she’ll stand up against attempts to weaken our unions. That means achieving real labor law reform, ensuring free and fair union elections, protecting collective bargaining rights, rolling back Right to Work laws, and making it easier — and not harder — for workers to join unions.

In June, Klobuchar did release a list of executive actions she would take in her first 100 days as president, which includes many that would make it easier for workers to join labor unions. For example:

  • She would require federal contractors to pay no less than $15 an hour to their employees
  • She would reinstate the Obama-era overtime rule, which would expand the number of workers eligible for overtime pay.
  • Klobuchar will direct the FTC to develop rule that would bar companies from making low-wage workers sign non-compete clauses.
  • She would direct the Labor Department to stop fighting efforts to make businesses disclose detailed salary information, including employee pay for workers of different races and genders.
  • Klobuchar supports reinstating an Obama-era standard of the joint-employer rule, which recognizes that employees may have more than one employer that is responsible for their working conditions.
  • Klobuchar will also restore an a rule rescinded by President Trump requiring companies to publicly disclose when they hire consultants to counter workers’ efforts to unionize.

Tom Steyer

Billionaire Tom Steyer, along with Gabbard, has the weakest labor platform of all the candidates. It’s not even appropriate to say he has much of a plan. All we know about Steyer is that he wants to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and has made a vague promise to strengthen labor unions. He also says he supports paid family leave and affordable child care for working parents, but doesn’t give any details about how that would work.

Andrew Yang

Yang is enthusiastic about equal pay and paid time off but makes no mention of labor unions in his platform. Here are the highlights:

  • He wants to pay federal workers who are performing the same job the same salary.
  • He wants to work with states to implement salary disclosure laws.
  • He’ll require federal contractors to disclose salary information for their employees (they already do this) and will ban companies that don’t follow equal pay rules.
  • He wants to pilot studies to see if different policies result in more equitable hiring and pay in the federal workforce (however, the pay gap is actually more of a problem in the private sector than in the federal government).
  • He wants to require employers to offer at least six to nine months of paid family leave.
  • Yang plans to create a tax refund of up to $1,000 to help cover the cost of moving expenses for any Americans relocating for work.
  • He wants to reevaluate professional licenses and remove the requirement that federal contracts go to people with licenses that are deemed unnecessary.
  • Yang promises to work with state licensure boards to increase the mobility of professional licenses from state to state.
  • He wants to require employers to give full-time workers at least four weeks of paid time off, except for new companies less than nine years old and small companies with fewer than 50 employees.

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