2020 Elections

Bernie Sanders releases plan to double union membership as Democrats fight for labor support

Key Points
  • Bernie Sanders unveils a plan designed to more than double U.S. labor union membership. 
  • It comes ahead of an AFL-CIO event in Iowa as the more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates fight for support from politically influential labor unions. 
Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during the 2020 Public Service Forum hosted by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) at UNLV on August 3, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders released a plan Wednesday that aims to dramatically increase U.S. labor union membership.

The Vermont independent's sweeping proposal would make it easier for workers to join unions, end the so-called right-to-work laws recently favored by Republicans and bar the replacement of striking workers, his campaign said Wednesday. It would also stop federal contracts to companies that pay workers less than $15 per hour, outsource jobs or discourage workers from forming unions, among other measures.

Through the plan, Sanders would aim to double union membership by the end of his first term in office in January 2025. He contends it would boost pay and benefits for U.S. workers who have seen money disproportionately flow to companies and their executives.

Sanders' measure comes as the more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates fight for support from politically influential labor unions. He released it ahead of a speech later Wednesday at an AFL-CIO event in Iowa, which will hold the first Democratic presidential nominating contest in February.

How Bernie Sanders made his millions
How Bernie Sanders made his millions

Union leaders have pushed candidates to release labor plans as Democrats court the groups for endorsements. Mary Kay Henry, who leads the Service Employees International Union — one of the country's largest — will give a speech Wednesday pushing "every 2020 presidential candidate to release a detailed plan explaining how they will make it possible for all working people to join unions." While the political influence of unions has dwindled along with overall membership, Democrats still see the organizations as key pillars of support.

Last year, only 10.5% of wage and salary workers in the U.S. were union members — down from 20.1% in 1983, according to the Labor Department. At 7.7%, Iowa had a lower membership rate than the country as a whole.

Democrats are also fighting for position in several early voting states with a bigger union presence than Iowa, including California (14.7% membership) and Nevada (13.9% membership).

Sanders' plan would also:

  • Create what his campaign called a "sectoral bargaining system" that sets standards across entire industries, rather than at individual companies
  • Ensure federal workers have a right to strike
  • Stop businesses from making workers "independent contractors" or "supervisors"
  • Require companies to pass along any savings they get from transitioning to Sanders' signature "Medicare for All" proposal from current union-negotiated plans to workers in the form of wages and benefits
  • Keep union-sponsored health providers available to members

Sanders has pushed to insure all Americans through a single-payer, government-run plan. Democratic presidential candidates who have criticized his proposal have in part argued it would hurt union members, as they would lose the health benefits they negotiated.

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