By Bernie Sanders / CounterPunch
We are living in a moment where corporate America and the 1% have more economic and political power than they have ever had in the history of our country. The time is long overdue for Congress to stand up for the working families of our country, 60% of whom live paycheck to paycheck, and not just wealthy campaign contributors and lobbyists.
Let’s be clear: The American people are sick and tired of the unprecedented corporate greed and illegal union busting that is taking place throughout this country.
They are sick and tired of CEOs making nearly 400 times more than the average worker, billions in stock buybacks going to the people on top, while millions of workers struggle to put food on the table and pay the rent.
They are sick and tired of 3 people in America owning more wealth than the bottom half of our society – 165 million people, while some 18 million families are paying over 50 percent of their limited incomes on housing and some 600,000 Americans are homeless.
American workers want to know why it is that, despite huge advancements in technology and worker productivity, the average worker in America today makes about $50 a week less than he or she made 50 years ago after adjusting for inflation.
And there are a number of reasons for that.
The fact that the federal minimum wage has been stuck at a starvation wage of $7.25 an hour for 14 years and has lost nearly 30 percent of its purchasing power is one such reason. That is why we need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage – action the HELP Committee will be addressing in the near future.
But probably the most important reason that real wages are lower today than they were 50 years ago is the fact that corporate America and the billionaire class have been waging a war against the right of workers to exercise their constitutional right to form unions.
And, as a result of that war, trade union membership is at its lowest level in the modern history of America.
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In America today, 71 percent of the American people approve of labor unions and yet only 6 percent of private sector workers belong to one.
The HELP Committee will be asking why, at a time of record-breaking corporate profits, are multi-billionaires doing everything in their power to deny workers the right to join a union?
And the answer to that question is not that complicated. What corporate America understands is that when workers join unions they earn better wages, benefits and working conditions. In fact, union workers earn nearly 20% more, on average, than non-union workers.
Corporate America understands that 64% of union workers have a defined benefit pension plan that guarantees an income in retirement compared to just 11% of non-union workers.
Corporate America understands that union workers are half as likely to be victims of health and safety violations compared to non-union workers.
All of those reasons and more is why we are seeing more union organizing today than we have seen in decades. We’re seeing it at blue collar jobs, we’re seeing it at white collar jobs and on college campuses. We are seeing it in healthcare as nurses organize as well as doctors.
And with this growth in organizing we are also seeing the corporate response. And that is that major corporations all over this country are taking unprecedented and illegal actions against workers who are fighting for economic justice.
That is why major corporations like Starbucks and Amazon have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on union busting campaigns and anti-union law firms. They would rather spend millions to break unions than provide decent wages and benefits for their employees.
That is why over half of all employers in America threaten to close or relocate their businesses if workers vote to form a union.
That is why when workers become interested in forming a union, they almost always will be forced to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda.
As Human Rights Watch has said: “Freedom of association is a right under severe, often buckling pressure when workers in the United States try to exercise it.”
And even when workers overcome all of these incredible obstacles and win union elections, 63% of workers who vote to form a union don’t have a union contract a year later.
Incredibly, on average, because of corporate obstructionism, it takes 465 days to sign a first contract after a union wins an election. One third of successful organizing campaigns cannot get a contract in the first three years after a union victory.
That is unacceptable and starting tomorrow the HELP Committee will fight to change that reality by passing the Protecting Workers Right to Organize Act (otherwise known as the PRO Act).
The PRO Act will make it easier for workers to exercise their constitutional right to form a union free from fear, intimidation or coercion by their corporate bosses.
It will make it easier for workers to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.
It will finally hold corporate CEOs accountable for the unprecedented level of illegal union busting that is taking place all over America.
Under the PRO Act, corporations will finally be held accountable for violating federal labor laws.
Incredibly, in America today, corporations are charged with breaking labor law in more than 40 percent of all union elections – and yet the penalties for this illegal behavior are virtually non-existent.
Pathetically, far too many corporations have made the calculated decision that it is much more profitable and beneficial to their bottom line to break the law than to follow it.
In fact, the financial penalty for corporations retaliating against pro-union workers in America today under current law is ZERO.
That will change under the PRO Act. Under this legislation, corporations will be fined up to $50,000 for violations of the National Labor Relations Act and up to $100,000 for each repeated violation.
Under the PRO Act, we will ban captive audience meetings that are designed to intimidate, coerce and threaten workers who support forming a union.
Under the PRO Act, we will make sure that all workers have a first contract within one year after winning a union election through binding arbitration.
Under this bill, we will ban, once and for all, the permanent replacement of workers who go on strike. No longer will companies be able to hire replacement workers or withhold benefits from workers who go on strike to improve their working conditions.
This legislation will over-ride so-called right to work laws that have eliminated the ability of unions to collect dues from those who benefit from union contracts.
This legislation will end the ability of corporations to misclassify workers as “independent contractors” or label ordinary workers as “supervisors” to prevent them from organizing.
And that’s not all the HELP Committee will be doing.
The second bill we will be marking up is the Healthy Families Act to end, once and for all, the international embarrassment of the United States of America being the only major country on earth not to guaranteed paid sick days to workers.
This legislation would guarantee that every worker in America receives up to 7 paid sick days from their employers.
You know, we hear a lot of talk in this town about “family values.”
So, let me be clear: When a wife is diagnosed with cancer and a husband cannot get time off of work to take care of her that is not a family value. That is an attack on everything that a family is supposed to stand for.
When a working mom is forced to send her sick child to school because she cannot afford to stay home with her that is not a family value. That is an attack on everything that a family is supposed to stand for.
Let’s be clear: The United States is the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee a single day of paid sick days.
In Germany, workers are entitled to a total of six weeks of sick days at 100% of their salary.
In France, workers are entitled to a total of 90 days of paid sick leave at 50 percent of their salary.
In Denmark, workers are entitled to at least 30 days of paid sick leave capped at about $638 a week.
In Canada, workers are entitled to 10 paid sick days at 100% of their salary and are eligible to receive 26 weeks of paid sick benefits at up to 55% of their salary.
In the United States, workers are entitled to receive a total of ZERO paid sick days.
That has got to change.
Last place is no place for the United States of America.
It is time for the United States of America to join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee at least 7 paid sick days to every worker in America.
At a time of record-breaking corporate profits and exorbitant CEO pay, the idea that the richest country in the history of the world cannot guarantee paid leave for its workers is a national disgrace.
Just a few months ago, the American people were outraged to learn that rail workers – workers who have very dangerous and very difficult jobs – were not guaranteed a single day of paid sick leave.
The good news is that thanks to a strong grassroots trade union movement that is beginning to change.
Today, over 50,000 rail workers are now guaranteed up to 7 days of paid sick leave.
We need to build on that momentum by guaranteeing 7 paid sick days, not just to rail workers, but to every worker in America.
Last, but not least, the third bill that the HELP Committee will be voting on is the Paycheck Fairness Act introduced by Senator Murray.
This legislation would end the absurdity of women in America being paid just 84 cents on the dollar compared to men, as bad as this figure is, it is even worse for women of color.
In America today, Asian women make just 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. For Black women it’s just 67 cents. And for Hispanic women and Native American women it’s just 57 cents.
It does not have to be this way.
In Belgium, the gender wage gap is just 1.2 percent.
In Spain, Norway, and Denmark, the gender wage gap is 5 percent or less.
Across the entire European Union, the gap is just 10.6 percent.
In the United States it is 16 percent.
The Paycheck Fairness Act would close this gap by guaranteeing equal pay for equal work and making it easier for women to come together, file, and win lawsuits against unscrupulous employers who commit wage discrimination.
These bills are not only good policies they are precisely what the American people want.
According to the last polls I have seen, 87 percent of the American people support guaranteeing paid sick leave to every worker in our country – including 91% of Democrats and 86% of Republicans.
84% of the American people support equal pay for equal work – including 91% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans.
59% of the American people support the PRO Act – including 74% of Democrats, 58% of independents and 40% of Republicans.
Most Americans understand that the economy is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the powerful. Tomorrow, the HELP Committee will be taking an important step forward to change that reality.
Bernie Sanders is a US Senator, and the ranking member of the Senate budget committee. He represents the state of Vermont, and is the longest-serving independent in the history of Congress.