Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program released a set of sweeping recommendations to fundamentally rewrite U.S. labor laws. The report calls for sectoral bargaining, as well as other proposals that would help shift the balance of power in this country back into the hands of working people. The Clean Slate Project was launched under the direction of LWP directors and Harvard Law School Professors Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs. The project’s report, “Clean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Democracy and Economy,” which was released on Jan. 23, received extensive coverage in the national media.
Everything old is new again. If American workers are ever to emerge from the economic insecurity and political powerlessness that are so characteristic of our second, contemporary Gilded Age, they are likely to rediscover some of the innovations in labor policy and corporate governance that emerged more than a century ago in that first era of social inequality and capitalist excess. That’s because the structure of capitalism today, and the legal framework that sustains it, evokes many of the same social and economic pathologies that made Americans of that bygone era question the future of US democracy itself…A bold and comprehensive report from Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program, “A Clean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Economy and Democracy,” offers twenty-first-century reformers an innovative set of policy ideas challenging corporate power in our time. If any of the carefully crafted proposals put forth in this ninety-one-page report make it into the nation’s laws, working people and their rights will take a giant step forward across the country. And in states like California, which are already innovating above and beyond federal labor law, we will be empowered to do even more to protect and encourage worker power across the economy.
Imagine that your boss calls you and your co-workers into a meeting and announces that you are all getting raises. But before any glasses are raised for a toast, you are told that you’re not getting a raise, exactly, but being offered an opportunity to become an entrepreneur. Because you’re no longer an employee, but a contractor with no benefits, no protections and no real security. Welcome to the experience of precarity in America…There has never been a more critical time to support our workers and demand stronger protections. We have a shared responsibility as a society, as we navigate the shifting environment of the future of work, to create a forward-looking, comprehensive plan that values the economic dignity of each and every worker. Clean Slate for Worker Power aims to do just that. Under the vision and leadership of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, and supported by the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a set of multi-stakeholder working and advisory groups has informed the initiative’s recommendations to reconstruct labor laws to bring balance and fairness to America’s economy. This week, Clean Slate has released a roadmap to build worker power for a more just economy and democracy.
By many accounts, the 2020 election cycle features the most debate about labor we’ve seen in decades. There is widespread agreement that workers are struggling in today’s economy, that worker organizing must be supported and that all workers should have the right to equitable opportunities and just jobs. When workers can come together collectively, they counterbalance the forces that generate inequality—and our labor laws play a key role in shaping access to opportunity and power. In a time when we are seeing record levels of economic inequality and concentration of economic power by corporations and the wealthy, the stifling of worker power in our economy threatens the very viability of American democracy…A redesign of U.S. labor law released this week by the Clean Slate for Worker Power coalition takes an important step forward by arguing that we need to overhaul our labor laws. Critically, the report argues that the starting point for this redesign needs to be contesting the systems of oppression so foundational to our existing labor laws that they often feel inevitable.
For the past 45 years, just about all of the income gains of America’s increasing productivity have gone to the elite and upper-middle class, while real worker wages have remained roughly flat. Today, the top one-tenth percent of earners, those earning more than $1.5m a year, own as much of the nation’s wealth as the entire bottom 90%. This obscene concentration of wealth, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression, is unsustainable and a threat to our democracy….With enthusiasm, we join the Clean Slate for Worker Power project out of Harvard Law School, and endorse the slate of recommendations stemming from this project that are due out this week. This bold vision is necessary to bring about a more equitable and engaged society that rebalances the power in the workplace that has left so many workers vulnerable to the whims of a so-called “trickle down” that for the past 45 years our neoliberal political economy has yet to deliver.
Every year, I teach a class on labor and workplace policy for graduate students at Columbia University. And every year, I begin class by asking students what comes to mind when they think about the labor movement. When I first started teaching, students mainly described unions as organizations that were once important, but probably out of date in the current economy. “Good for people who made cars,” quipped one student. This year the answers could not have been more different. Thanks to a massive wave of strikes and new efforts to unionize across tech companies and media outlets, my students saw unions in a different light. They were now interested in what unions could offer them in terms of better wages and benefits and voice on the job…Unions are thinking bigger, too: Both the American Federation of Labor and Service Employees International Union have announced proposals for broadening the scope of labor cooperation and bargaining at the sector-wide level. And the Clean Slate for Worker Power initiative at Harvard Law School recently released a sweeping set of proposals aimed at empowering workers — both by expanding traditional unions but also by creating other alternative mechanisms for worker voice.
In the 1930s, at the time of the writing of the Wagner Act—the law which grants workers the right to form unions and collectively bargain— union organizing took place during shift changes on factory floors and over beers in union halls. The law protected workers from retaliation for this type of in-real-life organizing, and it still does…In a new report “Clean Slate for Worker Power,” released last Thursday by Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, experts argue that U.S. labor law is obsolete and in need of a massive overhaul to meet the needs of workers organizing in modern times… “When [legislators] looked out at the economy in 1935, they saw factories where people worked similar shifts at similar jobs,” Benjamin Sachs, an author of the report and a professor of labor at Harvard Law School, told Motherboard. “But the modern workplace is fissured. Now we have gig workers and temp workers and franchised workers and freelancers. Empowering workers in the modern economy is different.” “There is no actual water cooler anymore,” Sharon Block, another author of the report, and director of Harvard’s Law School’s Labor and Workplace program, told Motherboard. “We recommend that employers should have to create digital meeting spaces, virtual water coolers, where there’s a safe space for workers to talk with each other about their collective interests.”
The basic facts about inequality in the United States — that for most of the last 40 years, pay has stagnated for all but the highest-paid workers and inequality has risen dramatically — are widely understood. What is less well-known is the role the decline of unionization has played in those trends. The share of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement dropped from 27 percent to 11.6 percent between 1979 and 2019, meaning the union coverage rate is now less than half where it was 40 years ago. … The good news is that restoring union coverage — and strengthening workers’ abilities to join together to improve their wages and working conditions in other ways — is therefore likely to put at least $200 billion per year into the pockets of working people. These changes could happen through organizing and policy reform. Policymakers have introduced legislation, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, that would significantly reform current labor law. Building on the reforms in the PRO Act, the Clean Slate for Worker Power Project proposes further transformation of labor law, with innovative ideas to create balance in our economy.
On one level, the new report, Clean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Economy and Democracy—released Thursday and written by more than 70 professors, labor leaders and activists—is an ambitious menu of recommendations for how to remake America’s labor laws. …Professor Sachs said, “The dire assessment by political scientists is that today in America the majority does not rule.” He added, “As economic wealth gets more and more concentrated, the wealthy build greater and greater political power that they, in turn, convert into government policy that enables them to build even more wealth, and on, and on.”The report is a wake-up call that something bold, even radical, needs to be done. Its authors see radical inequality and recommend radical solutions that seek to make the capitalist system fairer to workers, by giving them more power and say on the job, in politics and in policymaking. As Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and also one of the report’s main authors, put it, “The problem of inequality is on a different scale than in other countries, and the solutions have to be on a different scale.”
American Labor Law is broken, argues a report released today by Clean Slate for Worker Power, a project of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. So, the report urges, the nation’s labor laws need to be fundamentally rewritten to make it easier for workers to organize, to have a voice in corporate decisions that affect them, and to participate in democracy—all essential to address larger concerns about economic and political equity in a divided, polarized society. At bottom, the project aims “to shift power from corporations to workers,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program, at the project’s launch Thursday morning. The ambitious, 100-plus page report lays out an agenda for a revitalized, robust labor law for the twenty-first century. … “The richest 20 people in this country have more wealth than half the nation put together,” said Kestnbaum professor of labor and industry Benjamin Sachs, the co-leader with Block of Clean Slate. “It would take an Amazon worker about 4 million years working full-time to earn what Jeff Bezos now has. This vast disparity in material wealth means that millions of American families struggle just to barely get by.
Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program, and Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School (HLS) are calling for an overhaul of American labor law. The Gazette sat down with Block and Sachs to talk about their report “Clean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Democracy and Economy,” which was released today.
An article by Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs: Running throughout the Democratic presidential debates has been a consistent theme: We are living in an era of deep economic and political inequality, and these dual crises now threaten to undermine our democracy. What does economic inequality look like today? Well, it would take an average Amazon worker 3.8 million years, working full time, to earn what CEO Jeff Bezos now possesses. And the country’s wealthiest 20 people own more wealth than half of the nation combined—20 people with more wealth than 152 million others. On the political front, the facts are just as stark. Political scientists increasingly believe that our government no longer responds to the views of anyone but the wealthy. Of course, these forms of inequality are mutually reinforcing: As economic wealth gets more concentrated, the wealthy build greater and greater political power that they, in turn, translate into favorable policies that lead to even more profound concentrations of wealth. And on and on.
More than 70 scholars, union leaders, economists and activists called on Thursday for a far-reaching overhaul of American labor laws to vastly increase workers’ power on the job and in politics, recommending new laws to make unionizing easier and to elect worker representatives to corporate boards. … The Clean Slate report, nearly two years in the making, aims to rethink American labor law from scratch. “We firmly believe that we’re past the point of tinkering around the edges, that to really fix the problems in our economy and political system we need a fundamental rethinking of labor law,” said Sharon Block, one of the report’s main authors and executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. … “This is an attempt to lay out a comprehensive vision of what labor law reform ought to look like,” said Ben Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School and one of the report’s main authors. “We need this as a kind of North Star to know where we’re going when we have a chance to do reform of any kind.”
American workers have had the right to unionize since 1935, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his first term as president and the Great Depression was ravaging the economy. But the parameters haven’t changed much in 85 years. Not as the treatment of women and people of color became more equitable. Not as businesses employed more independent contractors who weren’t protected by labor laws. And not as the gulf between the haves and have-nots expanded. On Thursday, two Harvard Law School faculty members unveiled a sweeping proposal to rewrite US labor law, aimed not at updating what’s on the books but at starting over. … “ ‘Clean Slate’ is our vision for what labor law would look like if it were actually designed to enable workers to build an equitable economy,” said Benjamin Sachs, Harvard Law School professor and coauthor of the report. “It’s not a project designed to garner bipartisan support. It’s not a project designed to get the maximum amount of business endorsement.” … The project is not just about unions, said coauthor Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, who served in the US Labor Department under President Obama. It’s also intended to reform democracy, including proposals to promote workers’ civic engagement by mandating same-day voter registration and granting paid time off to vote and attend meetings.
Right now, too many rideshare drivers are teetering on the edge of the road. Nearly 80% of American workers report living paycheck to paycheck, but we live ride to ride. Despite recent legislative actions in New York and California to bring some stability to the rideshare industry, companies like Uber and Lyft still have too much power over our lives. … A new blueprint released this week called “Clean Slate for Worker Power” [a project of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program] fundamentally rewrites our nation’s labor law and provides a roadmap for a fairer future that would give rideshare drivers like me a seat at the table with the app-based titans.
An op-ed by Kate Andrias, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School: Cierra Brown works at a McDonald’s in Durham, North Carolina. She earns little more than minimum wage, and even with a second job at a local hospital she can’t afford health insurance and pays for her diabetes medication out of pocket. She is frequently asked to stay late and close the store, hours after the bus stops running. If she complains, she knows she could lose her job — and nothing would change anyway. … A consensus is building for such a system here in the US. Clean Slate for Worker Power, a coalition of more than 80 participants from labor, academia, and nonprofits, convened out of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, today released a set of sweeping recommendations to fundamentally rewrite US labor laws. The report calls for sectoral bargaining, as well as other proposals that would help shift the balance of power in this country back into the hands of working people like Cierra.