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Elizabeth Warren’s New Labor Plan Is Good. Bernie Sanders’ Is Better.

The Sanders campaign tackles one critical labor issue that Warren leaves untouched: at-will employment.

by Brendan O'Connor
Oct 4 2019, 9:41pm

Alex Wong / Getty Images

On Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released her plan to "empower" American workers, offering a detailed proposal to not only defend but expand labor rights.

Among many other things, Warren hopes to end exploitative practices like forced arbitration, which severely limits workers' ability to sue over things like sexual harassment, and employee misclassification, which companies use to avoid offering health insurance or time off. Her plan would also guarantee the rights of farm workers to organize and public sector workers, like school teachers, to strike.

Quickly, liberal media outlets jumped to celebrate the plan. "Elizabeth Warren Wants to Give Workers Power Like Never Before," Splinter glowed. Vox.com went so far as to dub it "the most ambitious labor reform platform of the 2020 campaign."

Certainly, there is much for workers to celebrate in both Warren's platform and what it says about the state of the American labor movement. After enduring decades of neoliberal antipathy for organized labor, workers and union activists across the country find themselves with multiple Democratic presidential candidates who have endorsed policies that would significantly expand the power of the American working class.

But declaring Warren’s labor plan "the most ambitious” of the 2020 campaign is a step too far. For all her talk of "big, structural change," Warren's platform focuses on workers' legal rights as individuals, rather than their rights as a collective.

The plan targets non-compete clauses, no-poach agreements, and mandatory arbitration, all of which serve to restrict workers' ability to move between jobs and speak out against exploitation. "In theory," the New Republic's Nick Martin argues, this "would lead employees to understand and demand their organizing rights, which would eventually lead to more collective action, which would lead to unionization."

That’s an impressive proposition. But it also falls short of matching the scope of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ own labor plan, which issues a more fundamental challenge to the very essence of the American workplace by tackling at-will employment.

The overwhelming majority of American workers are employed "at will," which means that they can be fired for basically any reason, regardless of performance on the job. If your boss doesn't like your shirt, or your politics, or your favorite sports team, they can fire you. Theoretically, workers enjoy certain protections that allow them to organize unions or combat racial and gender discrimination. But in the modern American workplace, the balance of power so favors employers that these protections are rarely enforced in practice.

Sanders's Workplace Democracy Plan, which he released in August , calls for the passage of "just cause" legislation, which would prohibit employers from firing workers for anything other than their performance on the job. Warren's plan leaves this fundamental imbalance untouched.

It would be easy to allow the many similarities between the candidates' platforms to obscure the differences. Both Sanders and Warren support European-style sectoral bargaining and expanding labor law to include farm and domestic workers. Both would work to ensure the right of federal workers to strike and ban the permanent replacement of striking workers in both the public and private sectors. Both would go after companies for misclassifying workers as "independent contractors," requiring that full time employees get things like health insurance and a minimum wage. Both support measures to make it easier for workers to organize new unions and would seek to nullify state-level anti-labor laws with federal legislation.

The list goes on. But for all their similarities, the two candidates are bringing fundamentally different approaches to the project of political reform. Warren, who made her name as a politician fighting for the rights of consumers, is working to "save" capitalism. Sanders is a self-declared democratic socialist who has decades of labor advocacy to his name.

"If there's going to be class warfare in this country, it's about time the working class won that war,” Sanders told the Iowa AFL-CIO when he introduced his own plan.

Warren's plan for organized labor is solidly progressive, offering decent protections to some workers who've never enjoyed them before and expanding the rights of others. But at its root, it is not as potentially transformative as the big, structural change—to borrow a phrase from Warren—that has been outlined by Sanders.

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