Bernie Sanders announces plan to double union membership if elected

Michael Sainato
Photograph: Alexander Drago/Reuters

Bernie Sanders has released plans to double union membership in the US during his first term in office as he campaigns to secure the Democratic presidential candidacy.

Sanders’ plan is an expansion of the Workplace Democracy Act, previously championed by the Vermont senator, and would also restore workers’ rights to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

Related: American unions have been decimated. No wonder inequality is booming | Steven Greenhouse

Between 1983 and 2015, union membership declined by 2.9 million workers, as the number of wage and salary workers grew by nearly 50 million. Nearly one-third of workers in the US were represented by a union 50 years ago, but that representation has declined since the 1960’s to about 11% today. Economists have directly attributed about one-third of increases in wealth inequality in the 1980s and 90s to a decline in labor unions.

Sanders first introduced a Workplace Democracy Act bill to Congress in 1992. His most recent version of the bill, co-introduced with the Wisconsin representative Mark Pocan, received 61 co-sponsors in the House and 16 co-sponsors in the Senate, including the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker.

That bill called for repealing right-to-work laws, replace union elections with card checks where workers just needed a simple majority of workers to sign union cards to form a union and increase financial penalties on employers who fire workers for union organizing.

The latest, expanded version of the plan includes granting federal workers the right to strike, prohibiting corporations from requiring workers to attend anti-union captive audience meetings and denying federal contracts to employers who pay poverty wages, outsource jobs overseas, engage in union busting practices such as hiring scabs or pay executives over 150 times more than average workers, and a just transition to Medicare for All.

“Bernie will require that resulting healthcare savings from union-negotiated plans result in wage increases and additional benefits for workers during the transition to Medicare for All,” the plan notes.

Corporations would also be required to honor pre-existing union contracts after mergers, and be banned from hiring permanent replacements for workers on strike.

A new addition to the plan also includes ensuring every public sector union in the US has the freedom to negotiate, which would overturn a 2018 Iowa supreme court ruling to uphold a rewrite of the state’s collective bargaining law by Republicans to limit collective bargaining rights of some public sector unions.

The pro-union plan seeks to rein in employers who overwhelmingly respond to union organizing drives in the workplace with anti-union campaigns that include hiring outside consultants, intimidating and retaliating against workers, and dragging out contract negotiations with newly formed unions.

Unionized workers are afforded around a 22% wage premium compared to non-union workers. A 2003 paper published by the Economic Policy Institute found even non-unionized workers benefited from wage increases based on the percentage of unionization within their industry.

“Making it easier for workers to form unions is not a radical idea. Sixty-two per cent of the American people support labor unions, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership is barely half of what it was 35 years ago,” the new plan states. “In order to reverse the 40-year decline of the middle class, we must strengthen unions and restore bargaining power to workers.”