by Jeremy Brecher and Joe Uehlein
While current proposals for a Green New Deal align with workers’ interests, organized labor brings traditions and insights that can make them even more compelling.
Incorporating worker demands in the Green New Deal program will pay benefits long before they can be implemented at a national level. It will ensure that labor’s approach is understood and adopted by a wide coalition. And it will provide guidelines for what policies that coalition will fight for at a local, state, regional and industry level.
Labor needs to begin the discussion on what it wants in a Green New Deal. It needs a program that will transform the role of organized working people at least as profoundly as the programs of the New Deal. But that can’t simply be a matter of going back to labor’s past glories.
The rights of working people have been eroded under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Labor law as amended by Congress and interpreted by the courts has become less a protection for workers and unions than a means to restrict their freedom. Simply rolling back recent conservative victories like the Supreme Court’s Janus decision is not enough. Labor can and should demand that the Green New Deal—like the original New Deal—establish a new framework that protects workers’ fundamental Constitutional and human rights.
- Labor should demand that any Green New Deal:Restore the right to organize, bargain collectively and engage in concerted action on the job: These rights were originally protected by the New Deal’s National Labor Relations Act, but they have been eroded by legislation, court decisions and the power of employers to discipline and fire their workers.
- Guarantee the Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly in the workplace: These rights are essential to workers’ freedom to organize as they see fit. They are also essential aspects of human rights and human dignity that should not be eliminated once you enter the workplace.
- Restore the right to strike: In the half-century following the Civil War, American workers’ movements maintained that the right to strike was a fundamental Constitutional right, guaranteed by the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of “involuntary servitude.” It’s time to enforce that right.
- Guarantee the right to a safe and healthy work environment: The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970 supposedly assured “safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women,” but it was deeply flawed from the outset and has been gutted over time. A Green New Deal can help meet both labor and environmental goals by banning all unsafe practices in workplaces.
- Provide a fair and just transition for workers whose jobs may be threatened by economic change: This should include but not be limited to change that results from the transition to a climate-safe economy. It should include an updated version of the GI Bill of Rights that gave returning World War II veterans education, housing, medical and other benefits to make a new start on life and economic development support for communities affected by economic transition.
- Establish fair labor standards: The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provided minimum wages, limited the hours of work, and established other protections for workers. Today the minimum wage is so low that it fails to ensure even a poverty-level income. In practice, workers can be made to work for as few or as many hours as their employers want. New labor standards should ensure that anyone who works gets a living wage; employees are provided predictable hours of labor; and that workers may not be fired without just cause.
- Establish strong state and local prevailing wage laws: The Davis-Bacon Act, passed on the eve of the New Deal, requires that all contractors and subcontractors performing federally-funded construction, alteration, or repair work must pay their workers no less than the prevailing wages and benefits for corresponding work on similar projects in the area. A Green New Deal should implement prevailing wage laws for all climate-protection jobs, all state- and locally-funded projects, as well as other industries.
- Encourage industry-wide bargaining: The labor relations system established by the New Deal often led to industry-wide collective bargaining in which all steelworkers or auto workers were united in their confrontations with management. Today, workers in each industry and each corporation are often represented by dozens of different unions who all bargain separately with little coordination. A Green New Deal can encourage bargaining councils and other forms of coordination that promote higher wages and prevent a race to the bottom by taking wages out of competition.
- Establish a “buy fair” and “buy local” procurement policy: A Green New Deal can provide incentives for quality jobs which provide family-sustaining wages and benefits; the right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining free of intimidation and reprisal; and hiring opportunities for workers in disadvantaged communities.