Bernie Sanders Just Released a Plan to Double Union Membership in His First Term

The Vermont senator published a “Workplace Democracy” plan on Monday, which outlined his vision for rebuilding the organized labor movement in the United States.
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As most Bernie Sanders supporters probably know, union membership in the United States has taken a steep decline in recent decades, roughly 50 percent since 1983. More than any other candidate in the 2020 Democratic field, Sanders has galvanized voters around the promise for a revitalized organized labor movement, a vision that has arguably earned him a reputation as the furthest-left candidate.

On Wednesday, Sanders released 17 policy proposals for how he would encourage organized labor, publishing a sweeping “Workplace Democracy” plan that promises to double union membership in the United States by 2025 (which would be the end of his first term if he wins the presidency). Last year, union membership reached a historic low at 10.5 percent. “It was the trade union movement that built the middle class in this country, and it is the trade union movement that is going to rebuild the middle class in America once again,” his proposal begins, adding that “declining unionization has fueled inequality.”

Perhaps most notably, Sanders pledged to allow the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) to recognize unions with a simple majority sign-up process, known as “card check," and do away with the cumbersome union election process. “Under Bernie’s plan, when a majority of workers in a bargaining unit sign valid authorization cards to join a union, they will have a union,” Sanders' plan states. This proposal—a long-standing dream of those in the organized labor movement—would make it much simpler for workers to form unions. Currently, organizers must jump over many hurdles for the NLRB to authorize a union election--a process that can take years. The “card check” proposal was once touted, and later abandoned, by President Obama.

Sanders also said he would prevent the misclassification of employees as “independent contractors”—a change which could allow gig economy workers to form unions and many workers to earn benefits from their employers. Uber and Lyft have built their empires by classifying their workers as “independent contractors” instead of employees, which allows them to deny workers basic labor protections and benefits.

Sanders also wants to repeal Section 14(B) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which has allowed 28 states to pass “right-to-work” laws. These laws have chipped away at organized labor power in former union strongholds in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and West Virginia by allowing workers to opt out of paying union dues, or even decline union membership entirely. Sanders’ plan would also grant federal workers the right to collectively bargain and strike, ban the replacement of striking workers in both the public and private sectors with workers known as “scabs,” and allow for secondary boycotts, or “solidarity strike actions” taken by employees of one company that does business with other company whose workers are engaged in a labor dispute. In short, Sanders is calling for a revival of New Deal era labor militancy.

Despite record low union membership in the United States, 62 percent of Americans say they support labor unions. “Making it easier for workers to form unions is not a radical idea,” Sanders campaign acknowledges in his plan. “In order to reverse the 40-year decline of the middle class, we must strengthen unions and restore bargaining power to workers.”