Sanders again proposes banning right-to-work laws
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a rally in Henderson, Nev. | John Locher/AP

LAS VEGAS—Going where even organized labor has not openly marched for decades, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., has again formally proposed banning state “right-to-work” laws.

Sanders, currently among leaders in opinion polls about Democratic presidential hopefuls, rolled out his proposal on April 8 before a Machinists’ women’s conference in Las Vegas. His reward was loud and long applause.

“Under the most significant labor legislation introduced in very, very long time, we will end once and for all the disastrous right-to-work laws in 28 states,” Sanders said.

Southern elites originally started RTW in the mid-1940s because they feared unity between white and African-American workers. It also is prevalent in the solidly red GOP Plains states.

But after the 2010 GOP mid-term election sweep, it spread to labor states such as Wisconsin and Michigan. But in an indication of the need for repeal, the gerrymandered GOP-run Missouri legislature passed RTW also, but a community-led and labor-led campaign forced a referendum on it and voters clobbered it by a 2-to-1 ratio – and GOP lawmakers in Jefferson City are trying to enact RTW again.

Sanders also said the RTW ban would include curbing company misclassification of workers as “independent contractors.”

Legally, independent contractors can’t organize and aren’t covered by labor laws, including minimum wage and overtime laws, unemployment insurance and workers comp. The “independent contractors” must also pay their own Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, both as employers and employees.

Misclassifying workers as independent contractors means bosses are “ruthlessly exploiting their employees by misclassifying them as independent contractors and [denying] them overtime by calling them supervisors,” Sanders said.

The Vermonter, making his second run for the Democratic presidential nomination, is trying to consolidate worker backing and union backing. Five unions – including National Nurses United, the Postal Workers, and the Communications Workers – backed Sanders’ run for the roses in 2016.

The others, including the Machinists, backed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who narrowly edged him – and then lost the Electoral College to GOP victor Donald Trump.

Banning RTW, which unions and workers call “right to work for less,” would help that effort. RTW for less refers to the lower wages and worse job conditions in RTW states.

Sanders’ RTW ban would repeal the section of the GOP-passed 1947 Taft-Hartley Act that legalizes those state statutes. The repeal would be in Sanders’ version of the Workplace Democracy Act, legislation the AFL-CIO has worked on in tandem with the new Democratic leaders of the House.

That panel’s bill does not have the RTW ban, however. Organized labor first tried to kill RTW – which lets employees use union services without paying one red cent for them – in 1965.

“Federal law already makes it illegal to force someone to join” unions, the AFL-CIO position paper on RTW says. “The real purpose of right to work laws is to tilt the balance toward big corporations and further rig the system at the expense of working families. These laws make it harder for working people to form unions and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

Sanders introduced RTW repeal in the GOP-run 115th Congress, too. But it went nowhere. GOP control of the U.S. Senate makes its prospects uncertain in this Congress, too.

“Treat your workers with the dignity and the respect they deserve,” Sanders retorted at the IAM conference.

Other presidential contenders, many of whom will appear on April 10 before the North America’s Building Trades Conference and its 3,000 delegates, have yet to discuss RTW.


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.