Democrats should fight harder for workers’ interests as Republican hatemongering intensifies.
For all the hours that people spend at work, stories about working (and working people) rarely get the spotlight. Labor makes headlines mostly when it’s no longer guaranteed. That pattern is clear in the headlines of late, with teachers in Columbus striking for air conditioning and teachers in Seattle striking for raises that barely keep up with inflation; with Minnesota private sector nurses striking to protest understaffing and safety issues that hurt both nurses and patients—all long-standing issues that have seen no national traction for years. Currently, the big labor story is that of the barely-averted freight worker strike, whose demands include such basic requests as not being disciplined for going to the doctor.
There is a powerful undercurrent of messaging to how and when media covers labor, as with teachers’ stagnated and unlivable wages not being considered “newsworthy” until teachers are driven to strike (and then vilified for it). This pattern of selective attention implies a novelty to these abuses when workers finally reach their breaking points, despite long years of abuse often precipitating strikes. The deliberate ignorance of workers’ realities reflected in popular news stories also implies that because those abuses happen every day, there is something inevitable—indeed, even rightful—about them. In fact, it is the same pall cast by the media’s disinterest in the everyday violences against working people that allows them to be so endemic in the first place.
If people don’t have much power over when, how, for whom and on what they work, then workers have an emotional incentive not to scrutinize that work too much—an incentive the system reinforces, with whole industries organized around distracting exhausted people. But as this strong labor market has allowed more people to ask themselves questions about working, and then to act on their answers, we’ve seen just how much institutional power is invested in pushing back on people’s ability to make choices about their working lives.
Right now, for the first time in decades, the window of opportunity for workers to make themselves loudly heard is starting to creak open, thanks to courageous workers at some of the most exploitative major corporations in America yanking on its hinges. Political leaders who are willing to back workers’ interests have a powerful, underutilized opportunity to tap into that momentum, and help open that window further.
71 percent of Americans now approve of labor unions, the highest percentage since 1965. At the same time, polling conducted by Navigator this summer found that four in five Americans believe that “corporations being greedy and raising prices to make record profits” is driving inflation, including 71 percent of Republicans, 82 percent of independents, and 87 percent of Democrats. As Republicans stoke people’s discontent towards hateful and divisive ends, Democrats must provide equally motivating answers. We think that answer can be found in a full-throated embrace of workers’ interests, which invariably means standing up to the powerful, entrenched corporations prioritizing profit over people.
“The administration needs an agenda that excites people,” we wrote for our Corporate Crackdown project this spring. “We believe an agenda that stresses a clear conflict between the American people and ultra-rich/corporate lawbreakers, and delivers results for ordinary people, will do just that.”
There is no time for Democratic leadership to do things by half. Particularly with so many simultaneous battles to fight, each with their own long chains of consequence—income inequality, rising fascism, the interlocking ecological crises of rising extinctions, food and clean water shortages, and extreme weather disasters—it is essential that leadership connect the dots between these fights and tackle them together.
In Congress, the proposed “Worker Safety in Climate Disasters Act” is an example of how leadership can target the intersection of two issues—workplace safety and climate change adaptation—to prevent the vulnerabilities inherent in each from compounding. In the executive branch, there’s OSHA’s new enforcement initiative for heat in the workplace, undertaking surprise inspections of workplaces and investigating heat complaints as summers get ever-hotter.
We were glad to see Biden come out in support of California’s proposed “Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act,” which would help farm workers organize and collectively bargain for better working conditions. Still, it’s remarkable that when Biden made his support for the bill public in the midst of a long, record-breaking West Coast heat wave, he said nothing about the dangerous conditions farm workers are enduring as the extremes of climate change intensify. The heat wave could have been a powerful opportunity for Biden to connect the dots between climate change, workers’ rights and corporate exploitation.
With no shortage of ongoing ecological disasters, we hope that Democrats in Congress will use their oversight capabilities to seize control of the narrative, and address this multifaceted emergency with the urgency it deserves. (How about tying extreme weather events to their corporate sponsors? See: Puerto Rico’s total power outage in the midst of Hurricane Fiona, brought to you by LUMA Energy, its privatized and exploitative electric utility.) Of course, this would necessitate Democratic leadership being far more willing to antagonize—and far less willing to take donations from—fossil fuel companies and other extractive industries.
Another missed opportunity to advance the fight on multiple fronts at once involves the USPS’s outrageously bad plan to upgrade its fleet of postal vehicles. With the scandal-plagued, much-loathed Trump-era postal chief Louis DeJoy still in power, Biden has an opportunity to improve the agency’s reputation and public trust through nominating governors to the postal board who pledge to fire DeJoy. There is also an opportunity for the agency to be a climate leader, if the USPS chose to electrify their entire postal fleet. And then there’s an under-appreciated opportunity to support unionized labor through federal contracting, too.
As our Vishal Shankar wrote, “Oshkosh Defense, a Wisconsin company awarded the $10 billion fleet contract with USPS, plans to build the next-gen vehicles not in its eponymous hometown with a decades-long United Auto Workers-organized workforce, but in the notoriously anti-union state of South Carolina… A good contract, at the bare minimum, should require the use of unionized workers to build the fleet.”
How To Stand Up For Labor? Stop Contractors From Abusing Their Workers.
The public shouldn’t have to beg the federal government to ensure that public dollars are not being used to pad the profit margins of corporations actively exploiting their workers. Unfortunately, as it stands now, it seems we do. Still, federal contracting with its many flaws also represents a robust opportunity for President Biden to capitalize on this tidal wave of pro-worker, pro-union sentiment and put the economic power of the federal government’s contracting apparatus behind solidly good-on-labor firms. There are many steps Biden and the agencies he oversees could take to begin divesting from union-busting, wage-stealing, worker-abusing firms, which would ensure that his government is fully aligned with arguably the most pro-labor president ever.
While basic worker protections should already be baked into the government’s $637 billion contracting economy, unfortunately, in practice they’re hardly sufficient. The federal government has, on its face, fairly robust labor protections in place as outlined by the Service Contract Act and other legal mandates. But procurement agents and those who otherwise oversee contract awards and management regularly turn a blind eye to contractors’ and subcontractors’ compliance with employee classification policies, fair-wage standards, paid leave policies, and more.
Years of examinations by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) have found the current contracting system to be riddled with abuse, with a culture defined by “poverty wages, little to no benefits, and labor policy violations that are difficult for workers to redress,” in violation of contracting policy and other federal labor-related laws. Effectively, agencies’ lack of oversight has created a culture of contracting across the federal agencies that passively allows for the rote abuse of workers resulting in massive private paydays pillaged from public funds.
The problem is so endemic that between 2012 and 2017, the Center for Public Integrity found that 70 percent of all cases lodged against federal contractors with the Department of Labor resulted in “substantive” violations. Yet, these bad actors are still regularly awarded new lucrative contracts even when they have long records of gross violations in contracting law and policy. The Center for American Progress revealed that between 2014 and 2019, contractors were barred from new federal contracts in less than 2 percent of cases in which they were found in violation of contracting policy. CPI noted that in between January 2015 and July 2016 alone, agencies awarded or modified contracts “worth a total of $18 billion to 68 contractors with proven wage violations.” This is unacceptable.
The federal government has a responsibility to the more than 12 million workers who labor on its behalf to guarantee that their rights are upheld, and that federal law is honored and observed at every stage of the contracting system. Federal contracting dollars should not represent a profiteers’ playground predicated on de facto exemptions in basic workplace, employee, and labor protections.
Why Are Your Tax Dollars Subsidizing Amazon’s Union Busting?
Take Amazon, for example. This April, the NLRB found that Amazon had been engaging in illegal anti-union activity. And yet the company was awarded a $10 billion dollar NSA contract that same month. As of May 2022, Amazon had also already secured at least $367 million worth of contracts from the federal government, and Bloomberg further calculated that Amazon’s direct and indirect intake of government funds could total upwards of $3 billion annually over the next three years. This excludes the non-public, though assuredly lucrative, defense contracts the corporation is known to have, which may themselves total an additional unidentified billions. So the question remains, why are such exorbitant funds being funneled to a corporation whose egregious abuses of its labor force (and illegal interference in unionization efforts) is broad public knowledge?
Unfortunately, Amazon is not novel in its overt abuse of its workforce, and is instead indicative of how most of the largest firms—who also benefit the most from current contracting structures—behave. We have to do better.
Bernie Sanders asked similar questions in a Senate Budget Hearing this May, while urging Congress and the Biden administration to divest the lucrative federal contracting economy from these hyper-abusive corporations. He’s right. Though Republicans during the Trump era sought to undermine the government’s ability to hold abusive contractors to account, significant options remain available to the administration and its allies in Congress if they’re willing to take the aggressive stances needed to protect people (and to enforce standing law).
As we head into the first anniversary of 2021’s striking Striketober, which might yet be rung in by an equally historic rail strike, the heyday of the labor movement seems to be here and here to stay. Our federal government, helmed by a self-described pro-union and pro-labor president and in an era of record-breaking pro-labor public sentiment, should be a leader in expanding the guarantee of basic worker rights in workplaces around the country.
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week: