AOC bill: Federal contractors must obey labor law and allow unions—or lose
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is eyeing tougher regulations for companies that do work for the federal government on contract. A new bill she's proposing would require contractors to follow all labor laws and allow their workers to unionize or else lose the contract. | J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON (PAI)—Every year, the federal government hands out billions of dollars—$500 billion last year—to corporate contractors and, through them, subcontractors. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to ensure those dollars go to union members, union shops, or firms that will let workers unionize.

If they don’t, the first-year Democratic Socialist U.S. representative from New York City says legislatively, they’ll lose out.

That’s the point of HR5073, the A Just Society: Uplift Our Workers Act, which Ocasio-Cortez recently dropped in the hopper. It says, in no uncertain terms, that firms getting federal funds must be pro-worker, obeying all labor laws and not putting roadblocks in front of unionization—or else.

The federal contractors and subcontractors won’t like the pro-worker provisions, which include everything from card-check recognition after union organizing drives to guaranteeing the right to strike to employer-subsidized high-quality health care to a $15 minimum wage, or prevailing wages, whichever is higher, immediately.

The measure won’t get a hearing this year, as there’s too little time left and Congress’s schedule is jammed, but Ocasio-Cortez introduced it as the first step in demanding future action to protect and promote the nation’s workers and their rights.

One presidential hopeful, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., has said she backs it, in principle.

“I’d make sure we have the right to collective bargaining and put these provisions in all government contracts,” Klobuchar told the Teamsters presidential forum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Dec. 7, and a livestream audience. “I’d have the prevailing wage, and make sure they (contracts) were fair and would go to union workers, too.” She did not mention Ocasio-Cortez or the bill by name, however.

HR5073 would affect corporations and other enterprises large and small, from a “Christian-only” South Carolina day care center to Walmart. She views contracts as leverage to force firms to recognize and follow workers’ rights.

Ocasio-Cortez’s legislation goes beyond federal contracting recommendations which then-President Barack Obama issued late in his eight-year tenure. He told federal contracting officers—who decide which firms qualify for federal work and which win specific bids—to strongly consider several factors in those decisions.

One was the firm’s record on obeying, or breaking, worker rights laws, including labor laws, wage and hour laws, and job safety and health laws. Others were if the firm obeyed civil rights laws, paid its taxes, and obeyed environmental laws.

But Obama also made clear he wanted errant firms to atone: They would get a chance to shape up and correct any prior wrongdoing before being barred from bidding for federal business.

Ocasio-Cortez not only requires firms to follow labor laws, but her legislation doesn’t give them an out.

HR5073 orders the Office of Management and Budget and the Labor Department to set up a scoring system for federal contractors. It says a contractor’s or subcontractor’s score “shall be considered approximately equal in importance, or significantly more important than cost or price,” when firms bid for federal work or to provide goods and services to the government.

That score, the measure adds, depends on whether the contractor or subcontractor follows a host of requirements, or doesn’t. It doesn’t say how many “points” a firm would need to pass, or how few mean it would flunk.

The mandates include requiring firms “to be in compliance with any federal laws or executive orders” on workers’ rights, and to guarantee that “a maximum amount of work shall be performed by full-time workers working 40 hours a week.”

That provision would hit one notorious labor law-breaker, Walmart, right in the pocketbook. It provides millions of dollars’ worth of goods to the military alone.

HR5073 also says workers must get paid overtime they earn as well as a minimum wage of $15 an hour or the prevailing wage—for construction contracts—whichever is higher. And they must get 56 hours of paid family and medical leave yearly, with the ability to adjust their hours once they come back to work, so they can take care of themselves or loved ones.

And the firms must not only grant union recognition to workers upon a card-check majority or a unionization election win, but must commit to good faith bargaining with unions when the workers choose unionization.

Subcontractors can’t get away with avoiding the law, either. Not only does it apply to them, but the prime contractors who hire those subcontractors would be held responsible for the subs’ law-breaking, too.

And the contractor or subcontractor must show the feds it has “a policy to employ individuals who are represented by a labor organization that has entered into a collective bargaining agreement on the behalf of such individuals.”

In plain words: a union shop.

The “score” for the bidding companies would also have to follow “guaranteed predictive scheduling” so workers could spend time with their families, as well as advanced scheduling, and a hiring list of on-call regular workers to be called back to work if needed—rather than subcontracting work out or hiring temps.

The firm would also have “to avoid consistent under-scheduling which would result in employees working more hours than they are paid for,” a common practice in retail and service firms and especially at Walmart and in warehouses. And firms would lose if they retaliate against workers who complain, or who want to switch schedules and are barred from doing so.

All of this, and more, Ocasio-Cortez says in her legislation’s preamble, is to promote “worker-friendliness of each employer before entering into a Federal contract” by establishing “a contracting preference” for firms whose scores show they qualify.

Co-sponsors of Ocasio-Cortez’s bill include fellow “Squad” member Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., of Detroit, the House’s other Democratic Socialist, and Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill., of Chicago.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.