There has been a debate within the labor movement for years about what role unions should take in supporting social policy that helps all workers, regardless of whether they are in a union or not. Some union staff and members feel that if workers can get higher wages or better benefits through political action, they won’t have a reason to join a union. This seems to me to be a sort of lazy logic, along the lines of “I can’t figure out how to make my product appealing, I can only sell it if it’s standing alone with zero competition.” It eliminates the idea of a union being part of a social and political movement, and leaves us with the merely transactional elements of collective bargaining.
The Fight for 15 has done an incredible job of showing us what it looks like to capture the imagination of a group of unrepresented workers, and putting them in motion to win significant raises not just for themselves but for an entire generation of Americans. While we’re quite a ways a way from raising the national minimum wage to $15/hour, the victories that workers have won in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have given workers everywhere the courage to keep fighting for higher wages. Workers in many other cities and states have seen their base pay rise to $10 or $12/hour—and they continue to fight for $15. Right now, some unions are choosing to intervene in those fights by having their members exempted from legislation that raises wages—arguing that they have secured other kinds of financial concessions from employers, in the form of health and retirement benefits—that are worth more than the financial improvements that come with just raising wages. I’m curious to see at what point those unions will start to have an easier time at the bargaining table, because their members are no longer competing for jobs with people earning half of their wage—and to see what lesson union leaders take away from that experience.
In addition, lots of groups (led nationally by the Working Families Party & the Partnership for Working Families) are doing great work to win paid leave of various kinds, both at the ballot and in city councils and legislatures. The United States routinely ranks among the worst among industrialized countries when it comes to paid parental or sick leave—and limiting those benefits to the 7% of the workforce that happens to have a union is bad public policy. We’re all at risk of public health problems when restaurant workers have to go to work sick, and the union movement doesn’t do its members any favors by sitting on the sidelines when non-union workers fight to win the right to take a day off with pay.
It got me thinking about what other kinds of contractual benefits we might be able to put on the ballot, on the desk of a friendly governor or mayor, or on the legislative agenda of a progressive city council. Here are some ideas I came up with—if you have others, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
1. Shift differentials. Mandate a $1.50 bump in pay for every hourly worker who has to work between 11 pm and 6 am. If you’ve gotta have Taco Bell at 1 in the morning, shouldn’t the worker serving it to you make a little more money than the one who’s there at 1 pm?
2. Language bonuses. The US is increasingly a multilingual country. People who can demonstrate fluency in a language that serves a market of some statistical significance in a city should be rewarded for it. Can you pass a conversational test in Spanish and English in Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Miami? Great, here’s a $.50/hour bonus for you.
3. Scheduling. There has been a good deal of attention paid recently to the struggle that some workers go through just to know what their hours will be from one week to the next. San Francisco recently passed a law to protect workers’ schedules, and to encourage employers to offer more hours to their existing part-time workforce, before they make new hires. What if we took this practice one step further, and mandated that employers create a scheduling committee made up of workers? For women workers in particular, the right to control one’s schedule (and to know it in advance) can make an even bigger quality-of-life difference than a small raise.
4. Pay transparency. Governments should have an interest in what companies are paying to their constituents, in order to protect them from racial and gender-based pay disparities. We should start demanding that companies report annually on their actual (not average) rates of pay, broken out by demographics of the workforce. Publishing that information on the web will let a city’s residents make informed choices about the kind of companies they apply to work for.
5. More regulatory & licensing levers. Boston recently announced that they will provide free salary negotiation training for all women. That’s a great idea, and they deserve a lot of credit for thinking creatively about how to empower women workers. But I wonder what they are doing to deal with the fact that managers don’t always like it, when workers ask for raises? Can they require that every business who renews some kind of license in the city has to put their managers through salary negotiation training too?
I am of the train of thought that we’re able to win much more for our members when the basic standards they’re bargaining from are pushed higher by governments and vibrant social movements. In other words, it’s a lot harder to win wage increases (particularly when bargaining for low-paid workers) when the minimum wage has been stuck in place for 10 years. It’s easier to win wage increases when all workers are receiving regular raises, than it is when employers are looking at a labor supply thirsty to do even the tiniest bit better than $7.25 per hour. While these kinds of campaigns aren’t possible in all cities due to pre-emption laws, mayors (and governors in states with hostile legislatures) are usually still able to set wage & sometimes benefit standards for city contractors and subcontractors. Our movement should be pushing the envelope of what’s possible, instead of opting out to keep hold of the things that only union workers have, right now.