A Folsom, N.J., Local 351 inside wireman and business agent before his 2014 election to Congress, Rep. Donald Norcross is more familiar than most U.S. House members with the roadblocks to economic security for tens of millions of American workers.
Now, Norcross and three of his House colleagues have detailed those obstacles and proposed solutions in a report that was two years in the making, “Future of Work, Wages & Labor.”
“To make our economy work for all of us, not just the rich and powerful, working people must be able stand and fight together for higher wages, better health care and a more secure retirement,” Norcross said. “I know how important it is for workers to have a voice in the workplace because I lived it. I sat at the negotiating table fighting for working families for decades, and I know we need to take smart, bold actions to help lift up America’s workers.”
Norcross was assistant business manager of Local 351 and the longtime president of the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO. He and Rep. Mark DeSaulnier of California, Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan spent two years traveling the country, meeting with workers and consulting with policy experts to develop the report.
It examines the changing nature of work since the days when manufacturing accounted for one of every four jobs; long-term wage stagnation despite soaring worker productivity during the same time period; and the harm being done to all workers by endless legislative and court attacks on unions.
In their cross-country listening tour, Dingell said they heard how the “decline in collective bargaining, worker representation and the ability to form unions doesn’t just hurt workers, it hurts our communities and our economy.”
“Strong and updated labor laws are a necessity to fight income inequality (and) make the American dream accessible to anyone willing to work hard,” she said.
The report blames decades of assaults on organizing and collective bargaining rights for dramatically shifting the balance of power in American workplaces, heavily tilting the scales in favor of employers.
“Finding the right balance of power is crucial,” the report states. “It allows workers to better assert their rights to safe workplaces and fair compensation, often leading to workers feeling more invested in their work and their employer. This, in turn, can improve worker productivity, spur innovation, and provide pathways for upward mobility. All of this results in a better, cheaper product for consumers.”
Costco is a prime example, the report says: “Among its accolades, the company offers health insurance, dependent care assistance programs, and 401(k) plans to its part-time staff, has starting pay well above minimum wage, and promotes almost exclusively from within. At the same time, Costco has seen its profits increase year-over-year.”
Recognizing that most companies need a push in that direction, the report lays out ambitious goals. At the heart of them is overturning Citizens United and enacting other campaign finance reform, paving the way for working people to regain their voice in Washington and state and local governments.
“I can just hear people saying that it’s impossible, that the things this report proposes will never happen,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. “They’re right – to the extent that nothing is going to change until we overhaul Congress with our votes in November. When we do that, when we elect people who will live up to their promises to fight for working Americans, anything is possible.”
As outlined in the report, those possibilities include the Workplace Democracy Act to make it easier for workers to join unions and bargain contracts; the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act to deter unfair labor practices; worker representation on corporate boards; greater investment in job training programs; barring mandatory arbitration as a condition of employment; raising the federal minimum wage; increasing the threshold for white-collar workers to earn overtime pay; ensuring workers have reasonable access to sick days and family leave; enacting stronger penalties for wage theft; and much more.
“Today’s culture of unchecked corporate power and maximizing profits has come at the expense of America’s workforce,” Rep. DeSaulnier said. “The American worker needs help and they need help now.”