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New proposal to steer nation through COVID-19 crisis would give a voice to frontline workers

Today, scholars from Harvard Law School’s Clean Slate for Worker Power project and the Roosevelt Institute unveil a plan that channels the indignation—and expertise—of those who are underpaid while taking on the risks during this perilous time.

New proposal to steer nation through COVID-19 crisis would give a voice to frontline workers
[Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images]

As the coronavirus has spread throughout America so has the outcry from frontline workers anxious about their livelihoods—and their lives.

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Since the onset of the pandemic, walkouts and protests have been staged by, among others, packers and shippers in Amazon warehouses, those on the line at a Smithfield pork processing plant, Instacart supermarket shoppers, cooks and cashiers at McDonald’s and other fast-food chains, trash collectors in Pittsburgh, and nurses around the country.

Today, scholars from the Clean Slate for Worker Power project at Harvard Law School and the Roosevelt Institute will unveil a proposal that seeks to channel not only employees’ indignation, but also their insight, into a mechanism that can help steer the nation through the crisis.

Longer term, the plan has the potential to give workers more input on wages and benefits, which—as COVID-19 has laid bare—have become precariously thin for millions of people over the past three or four decades.

And it presents a way to do so outside the traditional realm of collective bargaining. That’s crucial. With a mere 6% of private-sector U.S. employees currently in a union—down from more than 20% in 1980—organized labor no longer has a megaphone through which masses of workers are able to speak.

“The medical folks need to take care of stopping the virus, but policymakers need to get the structural problems with the economy under control,” says Sharon Block, the executive director of Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program, which runs the Clean Slate project. “Maybe what we’re going through now will open up some imaginations.”

The proposal, which is intended to serve as the basis for the drafting of federal legislation, has three parts.

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First, Congress would form management-labor commissions in key sectors—healthcare, transportation, logistics, grocery, and so on—to discuss how “to prevent virus transmission in the workplace and related training needs, virus testing protocols, paid sick leave and family leave, hazard pay, and scheduling issues that impact health and safety.”

Businesses would be represented on the commission in proportion to their market share in a particular industry. Employees at those companies would be represented by their union, if they have one, or by some other labor advocacy group (such as United for Respect or the Warehouse Worker Resource Center) if it has an active on-the-ground presence. Otherwise, the Labor Department would select rank-and-file workers to serve, with suggestions coming from lawmakers.

As envisioned, Congress might grant the commissions either of two roles. One would be to simply make recommendations for keeping employees and the general public safe. In this case, executives would be obligated to share with their worker counterparts any information relevant to the subjects that the commission is charged with addressing.

The alternative has more teeth. It would give commission members the authority to bargain agreements on matters under their purview, which would then be made binding on all companies in the sector. Still, this approach would likewise hinge on management and labor coming together to find solutions palatable to both.

Cooperation instead of conflict

Getting labor and management around the same table “often involves a lot of conflict, but sometimes it involves cooperation—and cooperation is what we need right now,” says Brishen Rogers, a Temple University law professor, former organizer for the Service Employees International Union, and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, who coauthored the proposal.

There is precedent. In Europe, worker representatives, employer representatives, and government agencies have teamed up to deal with the fallout from COVID-19.

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Even America has turned to labor-management coalitions in the past. Ten days after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt convened 26 union, corporate, and government officials to make sure that military production could be ramped up sufficiently. As one account of the effort describes it: “Labor leaders were included on equal terms with businessmen” in pursuit “of a supreme national purpose.”

The second part of the Clean Slate-Roosevelt Institute plan would unfold in individual stores, factories, distribution centers, and hospitals. It would require companies to set up committees of workers, who’ve been chosen independently by their peers, “to meet and confer with management” on health and safety, testing, scheduling, and other topics brought to the fore by the crisis.

These worker committees would also be responsible for helping to carry out the recommendations—or binding agreements, if those had been reached—laid out by the sectoral commissions. Companies applying for federal financial assistance would have to certify that they had institutionalized these worker panels before receiving government funds.

“It’s really hard to enforce sectoral standards without following through at the workplace level,” says Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard law professor and another coauthor of the proposal. “It’s important to think about these as parts of a system—as two pieces of a whole.”

The final plank in the proposal would guarantee “strong anti-retaliation protections” for workers who participate on a commission or committee, including safeguards against being fired.

“This can’t be effective if people are too cowed to speak up,” says Block, who during the Obama administration served in a senior position in the Labor Department and as a member of the National Labor Relations Board.

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Advantages for employers

For employers—even those who claim to already have an open door for their workers to bring both grievances and good ideas—there could be advantages to having a more formal arrangement, given the magnitude of the challenge at hand.

While many large corporations have put all sorts of safety measures in place—spacing people six feet apart, taking workers’ temperatures, providing masks—it can be difficult for those at headquarters to detect among hundreds or thousands of field locations where those rules are being followed with fidelity and where they’re not.

“That often has to do with the fact that there is very little upward communication from people at the store level to corporate,” Michelle Miller, co-director of Coworker.org, explained this week during an online session put on by the Aspen Institute. “Because of the lack of organized power inside of these companies, it’s difficult for workers to make these conditions known.”

Those workers appointed to commissions and committees could well act as a warning system, flagging for management in real time where there are dangers across their operations.

Without these structures, however, it may not be realistic to expect workers to do more than stay at home or come in but keep their mouths shut.

“People want to speak up, but they feel like if they do, they’re going to lose their job,” says Jordan Flowers, a robotics technician at an Amazon warehouse in New York, who vows not go back to work until the company does more to ensure that he and others are safe.

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Amazon says that it has daily conversations with employees as part of a direct dialogue, and many workers have offered up advice to help keep the workplace clean. “Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams,” says Rachael Lighty, a company spokeswoman, who cites more than “150 significant process changes” that Amazon has made in response to COVID-19.

Over time, according to the Clean Slate-Roosevelt Institute proposal, the sectoral commissions and worker committees would expand their mandate to help tackle “the economic recession that will almost certainly outlast” the health crisis.

In some respects, this blueprint is an adaptation of an earlier initiative of the Clean Slate project. In late January, it put out a report urging the “fundamental redesign” of U.S. labor law, with the goal of enabling “working people to create the collective economic and political power necessary to build an equitable economy and politics.” Among its key provisions was a call for sectoral bargaining.

Beating back organized labor

It won’t be easy, of course, for any of this to be implemented—coronavirus or not. Even though what’s being proposed has nothing to do with encouraging unionization per se, it is likely to be tarred by opponents of labor as a backdoor attempt to organize workers under the guise of public health and safety. And studies have shown that businesses are willing to do whatever is necessary—legal or not—to beat back anything that even hints of a union drive. Meanwhile, their political allies in Washington have made it harder and harder for workers to organize.

At the same time, if there were ever a moment to break through all of that, now might be it.

Even before the pandemic, frustration among workers was clearly growing. More than half of those who took part in a 2017 survey from MIT reported that they have less say than they feel that they ought to have when it comes to compensation, promotions, job security, and more. Those behind the study labeled this “the voice gap.” Last year, strike activity surged in the United States, punctuated by stoppages among public school teachers, General Motors and AT&T employees, and many more.

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“There’s real pent-up demand among workers to be recognized,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a Washington University sociologist and close observer of labor trends.

It is not yet known who, if anyone, on Capitol Hill might try to translate the Clean Slate-Roosevelt Institute proposal into an actual piece of legislation. But it’s notable that Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ro Khanna, in the Essential Workers Bill of Rights that they have introduced, assert that frontline employees should be treated “as experts,” and the government should draw on their knowledge and experience “in developing responses to coronavirus.”

Rosenfeld points out that academics still debate why labor was able to enhance its voice and power so much after the Great Depression—whether the biggest factor was government policy (especially the Wagner Act of 1935, which established the right to unionize) or employee activism (such as big strikes undertaken by the United Auto Workers).

But what’s undeniable, he says, is that the combination of “bottom-up action from workers and top-down action from the government” changed everything.

The last six weeks have, once again, seen a flurry of the former. And now, with the emergence of the proposal from Clean Slate and the Roosevelt Institute, the latter could be within reach.

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About the author

Rick Wartzman is head of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at the Drucker Institute and the author of four books, including his latest, The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. You can follow him @RWartzman.

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