When Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016, his campaign was strikingly pro-labor. He proposed a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which was much further than most mainstream Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, were willing to go. He denounced a trans-Pacific trade deal that was anathema to many unions. He endorsed an organizing method, known as card check, that would allow workers to unionize without holding a secret-ballot election.
Yet by the standards of the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination, the Bernie Sanders of four years ago was something of a piker. At least half the candidates who will appear in next week’s presidential debate — including Mr. Sanders — have labor platforms that are more ambitious than his 2016 version.
Several candidates have pledged to ban noncompete agreements, which hold down wages for workers, and mandatory-arbitration clauses, which prohibit lawsuits against employers. They would effectively require many companies to treat independent contractors as employees, making the workers eligible for the minimum wage and unemployment insurance. They would enact a number of measures that would help workers unionize and strike, like allowing them to lead boycotts of an employer’s customers, which is currently illegal.
“For the first time we see really robust agendas in labor and employment policy that are about unions and also about really high labor standards,” said Lawrence Mishel, the former president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. “Politicians have been willing to say some of this stuff, but they haven’t been public about it.”
Perhaps the most ambitious proposal is an idea known as sectoral bargaining, in which workers would bargain with employers on an industrywide basis rather than employer by employer. Sectoral bargaining, which is common in Europe, would make it possible to increase wages and benefits for millions of workers in relatively short order, even for those who aren’t union members. It would also give employers an incentive to create better-paying jobs because doing so would no longer bestow a major cost advantage on competitors.
Under a sectoral bargaining system, unions or worker groups would have to show support from a certain share of workers in order to begin negotiating on their behalf — for example, by getting 15 or 20 percent of workers in an industry to sign cards. At that point, a federal agency like the Labor Department would convene the bargaining, with employer groups on one side and the worker groups on the other. The agency would review any resulting agreement, which, once approved, would become binding on all employers in the industry.
In recent months, Mr. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, along with Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke, have released labor plans that would either enact sectoral bargaining or take significant strides in that direction by allowing workers to negotiate with multiple employers at once.
That such a range of Democratic candidates have signed on to far-reaching labor proposals reflects the ways that lackluster wage growth, economic insecurity and widening inequality are upending politics and shattering a longstanding policy consensus.
In the early stages of the economic recovery a decade ago, most workers were primarily concerned with avoiding unemployment, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has conducted research on voters’ economic concerns. But as the expansion has plodded on, the focus has shifted from having any job to having a good job, which workers see as rare.
“You’re really trying to do something about what jobs pay,” Ms. Lake said.
With people increasingly open to more radical tools for accomplishing this, joining a union can seem downright middle of the road. According to recent polling by Pew Research Center, 42 percent of Americans view socialism favorably, up from 29 percent in 2010. During roughly that same time, support for unions has climbed significantly, from less than half to about two-thirds of Americans.
The increased openness to unions and collective bargaining has dovetailed with a palpable shift in expert opinion. For decades, economists tended to play down the importance of unions, attributing much of the increase in income inequality to a growing demand for skilled workers that resulted from automation and the spread of information technology. Some otherwise liberal economists were skeptical or even hostile to unions, seeing them as cartels that drove up wages for their members at the cost of reducing employment.
“I learned this in graduate school in macro — anti-union stuff from people who were highly inclined toward government redistribution,” said the economist and columnist Noah Smith, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and has written about economists’ suspicion of unions. “There was this definite anti-union bias among liberals in the economics profession.”
But in recent years, many economists have begun to reconsider those views. Partly this reflects a broader ideological shift in the country away from the market-friendly policy approach of the 1980s and ’90s, which has lost credibility as inequality has widened. “We as social scientists live in a society where clearly the general social and political environment affects the questions we ask,” said Arindrajit Dube, a labor economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
And partly this reflects a proliferation of research, which some of the campaigns have specifically cited, showing that employers have considerable power to hold down wages below the level the market would set.
Whatever the case, there appears to be a growing consensus among center-left economists that unions are a critical check on the tendency of capital to vacuum up the gains from economic growth. A recent paper by economists at Princeton and Columbia showed that unions raised wages for low-skilled workers in the decades in which inequality was narrowing and concluded that unions have “had a significant, equalizing effect on the income distribution.” A recent paper by the centrist Hamilton Project concluded that “unions lift wages, reduce inequality, and shape how work is organized.”
And then there is the growing consensus among union experts, including labor leaders, that improving workers’ standards of living after decades of declining unionization requires a much more ambitious approach than the movement previously embraced.
Before the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, the politically powerful Service Employees International Union told candidates that they would have to present a detailed health care proposal to be considered for its endorsement. This year, the union asked candidates seeking its support to produce specific plans to help underpaid workers act collectively and urged them to incorporate industrywide bargaining as a key pillar.
Other union experts have helped to deliver this message behind the scenes. Larry Cohen, a former president of the Communications Workers of America and a top volunteer adviser to Mr. Sanders in 2016 and now, said that he has been touting the importance of sectoral bargaining to Mr. Sanders in recent years. “The last time I talked to him about this was right before he decided to run,” said Mr. Cohen, who looked closely at sectoral bargaining systems in Norway and Argentina while traveling to those countries after the last election. “He was genuinely excited by it.”
Mr. Cohen has also been involved in an effort by two faculty members at Harvard Law School, known as the Clean Slate for Worker Power project, to convene dozens of labor experts, activists and organizers to reimagine labor law from the ground up. The group won’t publish its recommendations until January, but in the meantime it has worked to disseminate ideas like sectoral bargaining across the campaigns. Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs, the Harvard faculty members involved, have weighed in with several campaigns that have embraced this approach, according to aides to Ms. Warren, Mr. Buttigieg, Mr. O’Rourke and Mr. Booker.
Ms. Block, a former Obama administration official and congressional staff member who is a veteran of legislative efforts to make unionizing and collective bargaining easier, said experience had taught her that advancing labor interests through provisions like card check doesn’t work: Such measures tend to be too small to matter substantively, and they fail to generate political excitement among those who would benefit.
“The folks who don’t want this to happen will fight just as hard whether it’s small or big,” Ms. Block said. “But doing something bigger makes moving legislation easier because you have the potential to have a much bigger constituency behind it.”