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Pete Buttigieg reveals his Labor Day agenda on taking new bold approach to strengthen unions

2019-09-02

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (Mary Schwalm/AP)

The week before Labor Day, the National Labor Relations Board determined that it’s legal for employers to mislead their workers about their employment status. According to the NLRB’s Trump appointees, employers can tell workers that they’re independent contractors instead of employees — leading them to wrongly believe they can’t join a union.

It’s a stark reminder that even as we celebrate the achievements of organized labor — whose struggle won us the 40-hour work week, labor protections and child and safety standards — unions are under attack. Private-sector union membership has shrunk to 6%. And it’s no coincidence that the decline of the middle class and the decline in union membership have happened over the same period of time.

As organized labor has been weakened, the economy its workers helped build is no longer working for most Americans. It’s not working for the mother I met in Charleston, S.C., fighting to make more than $7.25 an hour so she could afford her son’s medical treatment. It’s not working for the man in Bettendorf, Iowa — a lifelong Republican — who told us he drives for DoorDash because “everyone needs a side job these days.”

For decades, we were promised a rising tide would lift all boats. Don’t worry about your slice, they told us, because the pie will grow for all of us.

We got the growth — with GDP and the stock market going up — but the vast majority of us didn’t see our income rise much at all. Even now, as we see flickers of wage growth, it’s not nearly enough. Instead, we see the Dow rising but life expectancy falling. That’s not right.

If we’re going to build a fair and prosperous future for us all, we urgently need every worker in America to have the opportunity to get ahead. And that means taking a bold new approach to strengthen unions for the next era.

That starts with putting an end to the legal fictions that are holding back workers in the gig economy. As the NLRB’s ruling underscores, too many employers — an estimated 10-20% — misclassify workers as independent contractors to avoid providing proper wages and benefits. Workers in construction, trucking and house-cleaning are often particularly impacted.

Proposed legislation in California would protect workers from misclassification, allowing them to access basic labor benefits like a minimum wage and protections from sexual harassment. Every state should consider similar protections.

And when I’m president, we’ll go even further. We’ll penalize employers who misclassify their workers, and make sure that independent contractors can unionize and workers can bargain with the company that actually sets the terms of their employment. As I told striking Uber and Lyft drivers in San Francisco last week while joining them to rally, a “gig” is a job, and anyone doing a job is a worker.

Ensuring unions can get ahead of the curve also means allowing multi-employer bargaining, so that workers in the same line of work who compete with one another will be allowed to bargain together. For example, workers at three unionized fast-food restaurants would be able to collectively bring their employers to a single bargaining table and negotiate a single pay package for all three. This as a transformative approach to organizing that looks beyond individual workplaces to help lift up workers together.

Finally, as the economy evolves, it’s critical that we prepare workers for those shifts. So when I’m president, we’ll make it easier to pursue education after high school, by ensuring that job-training programs actually lead to good jobs and well-paying careers. And getting that education shouldn’t require shouldering a mountain of student debt. That’s why when for-profit higher education doesn’t pay off, we’ll forgive the debt that’s weighing students down.

The gains we take for granted today didn’t come about on their own. They happened because people stood up and demanded them. Now, it’s our turn to take a stand in the name of our values and in the name of building a fairer economy and a stronger workforce.

Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a Democratic candidate for president.