Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is happy that the teacher strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona are being driven by teachers in grassroots movements that have forced unions to follow their lead.
“If you’re noticing what’s going on, the teachers are ahead of their union officials. I’m very impressed by that,” Sanders said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “To my mind, this is the tip of the iceberg, with workers standing up.”
According to Sanders, the teacher strikes show that most rank and file workers want to join and be active in unions. But they need changes in the laws to make it easier.
With that goal in mind, Sanders is leading a group of Democrats proposing new legislation that would greatly change the labor laws. They believe that these changes would increase union membership in the private sector, where numbers have been dropping. Currently just 6.5 percent of private sector workers are union members.
“The facts are very clear that workers in unions earn significantly higher wages than non-union workers,” Sanders said. “The reason we have seen such an assault not only on existing unions but against the rights of workers to join unions is employers know that. If they can prevent workers from becoming organized, they can pay insufficient wages.”
Sanders’ bill is called the Workplace Democracy Act. He believes it will have a major impact by removing many of the biggest barriers to organized labor’s growth.
The Democratic co-sponsors of the Workplace Democracy Act include Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). The bill also made it into the Democrats’ “Better Deal” platform, which calls for an end to right-to-work laws and was announced by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) last year.
Sanders believes that the weakening of organized labor in the U.S. threatens the progressive social programs that he and unions have fought for over many decades.
“You could make the argument that right now the trade union movement, as weak as it is, is the last line of defense against a corporate agenda that not only wants tax breaks for billionaires but wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid,” Sanders said.
“If they can break the trade union movement or make it without any power,” he asked, “who is going to stop that agenda?”
Although Sanders’ bill won’t pass through a Republican Congress, it may be a good political move as it could rally workers and turn out the vote in the midterm elections.
Without unions, and without a Congress looking out for workers’ rights and the middle class, there is a real risk that the United States will turn into an oligarchy where the government serves only the super rich. We are already headed in that direction, and therefore it is important that people support this new legislation and also support unions in order to reverse this trend which ultimately may take away American democracy.