Labor's Agenda Should Become Democrats' Top Priorities

09/04/2017 07:51 pm ET Updated Sep 05, 2017
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Since today is Labor Day, I thought it was time to point out something that seems incredibly obvious to me. If you listen to the inside-the-Beltway chatter, Democrats are currently seen as floundering around, searching for an agenda. This is less true than the cocktail-party-circuit crowd believes, but whatever. Simultaneously, Democrats are urged to try to win back the working-class vote, because Donald Trump supposedly seduced them all away with his empty promises. Again, the answer to this perceived problem is pretty obvious. The Democratic Party needs to rededicate itself to the Labor agenda ― thus giving it a solid agenda to fight for, and also a perfect way to woo back white working-class voters.

There are plenty of items on the Labor agenda to choose from, because workers’ rights have atrophied so much in the past few decades. Democrats need to select a limited number of these, and then promise immediate action on all of them should they win back control of either house of Congress. Here are six quick suggestions for changes that Democrats could easily champion:

Fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, with COLA

This one is the most obvious, and indeed is already part of the Democratic platform. This needs to be front and center in the Democratic campaign, next year. After all, the only people really opposed to raising the minimum wage are Republicans. Some Democrats are leery of going all the way to $15 per hour, but the likelihood is that any bill that passes will have a generous transition period built in to it, which should allay these fears somewhat. But “Maybe ten bucks for rural areas, twelve-fifty for small towns, and fifteen for the cities” is not an effective political slogan. “Fight for $15″ is. Democrats need to bite the bullet and wholeheartedly support $15 an hour. If the minimum wage rises, it will send ripples of rising wages from the bottom upwards through all the corporate ladders out there. It will benefit everyone, and is the exact opposite of trickle-down economics, so it is a perfect fit for Democrats.

Much more important than quibbling about the target number, though, is a side issue few have really noticed yet. To forever end the partisan gridlock surrounding the minimum wage, Congress needs to free itself from ever having to fight this fight again, by passing a minimum wage hike with a <em>built-in cost of living adjustment</em>. Having a COLA means every year the minimum wage creeps upwards a bit ― which should avoid gigantic political battles over the subject, forever. Congress has already proved this possibility, with their own wages. They used to have enormous political fights over raising their own pay, until they decided to just give themselves a COLA and never have to vote for it again. The same thing can happen with the minimum wage, if an adequate COLA is written into the law.

Overtime pay for everyone under $50,000 a year

Barack Obama dithered on this, but finally did come through with a new overtime rule for all workers. But because he had waited so long, it was easy for Trump to block the move when he took office. Basically, the rule mandates that everyone under a certain base pay per year be paid on an hourly basis, period. This includes overtime for hours worked past a 40-hour workweek. So instead of businesses being able to exploit workers by calling them “managers” ― thus avoiding any overtime pay at all ― people would be paid for the hours they work, until they are paid a professional’s salary (which should be pegged at $50,000 a year or even higher). This will give overworked Americans either more free time to enjoy life, or more pay each week.

Guaranteed paid sick leave

Everybody gets sick occasionally, but not everybody has paid time off to deal with it. What we need is a universal law that states each employee will accrue paid sick leave at a certain rate. When they have more than eight hours accrued, they can take a day off and not lose their pay. This is a peace-of-mind issue that workers would welcome.

Guaranteed paid vacation time

If you work full time, you should get a guaranteed two weeks of paid vacation each year. Those who don’t work full time should still be able to accrue vacation time (just at a slower rate, depending on the hours worked). Progressives are fond of pointing out that every other industrialized country on the planet has universal health care, but for some reason they never point out that every other industrialized country also mandates paid vacation ― and in most of them, this is much more than a mere two weeks. So why can’t America join the rest of the civilized world in this respect as well?

Medicare for all who want it

Speaking of universal healthcare, Democrats need to bring back the idea of the “public option.” People should be able to choose ― but not be forced into ― a “Medicare For All” system. It should be an option on all the individual insurance market exchanges, and it should also be open to all, not just those in a particular age group. But it should remain optional, so those who are happy with their health insurance now won’t be forced into a change they don’t want. But for those that do, a public option should be available for all who want it.

Hike the Earned Income Credit

The Earned Income Credit has one thing going for it that the others don’t ― some Republicans strongly support an expansion of it. Politically, this makes it a much easier goal to achieve. The E.I.C. is a refundable credit that people can claim on their income taxes. It works to benefit the “working poor.” If you work but make little money, when you fill out your taxes you may actually get a refund larger than any taxes you had to pay. Rather than paying money in income taxes, you are rewarded for working by what is essentially a government subsidy. Raising the amounts given is a very easy way to positively benefit millions of working Americans.

Of course, the problem of the “working poor” would also largely be solved by paying the working poor an actual living wage. If the minimum wage is hiked to $15 an hour, perhaps the E.I.C. wouldn’t wind up being all that big a program. Still, an E.I.C. hike could take place immediately, so it still would help through the transition period from the current minimum wage as it stair-steps its way up to $15 an hour.

Those are just six ideas that seemed the most obvious to me. There are plenty of others out there. Breaking up big banks, strengthening anti-monopoly laws ― there are a lot of big issues left to tackle. But the whole point is that Labor has been fighting for these issues for decades, and in doing so they’ve figured out a concrete agenda full of such good items. All Democrats need to do is rededicate themselves towards fighting for these issues, and (importantly) fighting for them at the front of the line ― before all other Democratic agenda items. Put the worker first.

The case is pretty easy to make, because it has been made so many times before. Why should we raise the minimum wage? Because a rising tide lifts all boats, that’s why. Why should every other country’s workers get three, four, five weeks of paid vacation when we get none? We’re as good as they are, and Democrats want to make American workers number one in the world once again! Democrats want to help workers first, because that helps people of every race, creed, religion, color, or identity all at the same time. A rising tide lifts all boats.

As I said, the case is pretty easy to make, especially since all the Republicans have to offer in response is trickle-down economics: “We’ll give your boss another gigantic tax cut and maybe your life will improve, somehow!” If, after all of Trump’s grandiose promises, this is all that happens under his watch, then the case for Democrats to make against it will be even easier.

The best way to make sure a Trump never happens again in American politics is to beat him at his own game when it comes to the American worker. Imagine if a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president swept into office and enacted these six items into law in their first 100 days of office. Tens of millions of people’s lives would improve almost immediately, and they’d have <em>Democrats to thank</em> for the change. Rather than just blather about making America great again, Democrats could actually deliver concrete and positive change for American families across the land. If the Democrats really are searching for a platform, all they need to do is stop by the local Union hall and they’ll find a great agenda waiting for them, chock-full of good ideas to champion.

Chris Weigant blogs at ChrisWeigant.com.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisWeigant

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