Rebalancing Economic and Political Power:
A Clean Slate for the Future of Labor Law
Made possible by the generous support of the Ford Foundation
The Clean Slate Project is an initiative of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School that is building a policy agenda to reconstruct labor law in order to rebalance our economy and politics. It is an 18-month project that involves leading academics, activists, advocates, labor leaders and practitioners and will culminate with a comprehensive set of actionable recommendations.
Project Background: Wages have been stagnating for decades. Income inequality is at its highest level in history and still growing. The political and economic power of ordinary Americans is dwarfed by the massive influence of corporations. The right to unionize has been eviscerated. Demagogues are seeking (sometimes successfully) to capitalize on these trends to advance their own goals to the further detriment of working people. In the face of these trends, how can ordinary Americans organize and mobilize for economic and political justice? And what does the law do to enable or impede their efforts? The magnitude of the challenges requires more than tinkering around the edges of the existing legal frameworks. It is critical that we bring new perspectives to answering these hard questions in order to build a policy agenda for legal reform that will restore balance to our economy and our politics.
The Clean Slate Project Process: The Clean Slate Project brings together the leading practitioners, academics, labor leaders, advocates, activists, technologist, futurists and other thought leaders from across the country to work collaboratively on developing a policy agenda to solve the most pressing labor law reform challenges.
Over the course of 18 months, the Clean Slate Project will engage the Labor and Worklife Program’s extensive network of thought leaders to provide bold and new ideas to reform labor law. The Clean Slate Project starts from problems of economic and political inequality that we need to solve and will then identify and elaborate the legal mechanisms that can address those problems. For inspiration, we will look to models from international labor law, from U.S. organizing of workers outside of the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Act, and to new ideas not yet tried.
By early 2020, the Clean Slate Project will issue a final report on actionable recommendations to fundamentally reconstruct U.S. labor law.
- The Clean Slate Project is led by Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs, who bring a unique combination of the necessary expertise to take on this policy challenge. Together, they have decades of experience in labor policy development. Sachs and Block have taken leadership roles in exploring the most important of today’s labor policy issues, including the impact of automation on labor markets, growth of the gig economy, new forms of worker organizations and the future of the labor movement.
Sharon Block, Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School; Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School; former Member, National Labor Relations Board; Senior Counselor to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez; and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Labor.
Benjamin Sachs, Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry and Faculty Co-Director, Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School. Sachs is the Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of OnLabor.org, the country’s leading labor law blog.
Solution Sets: What follows are the five focus areas for the Clean Slate Project – five possible sets of solutions to the crisis of economic and political inequality. The goal of each focus area is to generate new approaches to the creation of countervailing power for working people. We stress at the outset that each focus area, in addition to encompassing its specific challenges and opportunities, also must grapple with several overarching issues that are core to any successful labor law reform. Primary among these is how, in building worker economic and political power, we can also address racial and gender subordination. Each focus area will also have to contend with the question of federalism: at which level(s) of government should these solutions be pursued. And each focus area must consider that any reform will occur in the context of a hostile federal judiciary.
I. Building Worker Power at the Sectoral, Value Chain, Enterprise and Worksite Level and Expanding Who Has the Right/Obligation To Bargain:
I.A. Levels of bargaining: sectoral bargaining; mechanisms for tripartite bargaining; value-chain bargaining; the future of enterprise bargaining
I.B. Who bargains and what do we bargain over: definition of employer; range of workers who have the right to bargain; “codetermination,” workers on corporate boards and worker ownership; scope of bargaining subjects.
II. Available Forms of Worker Organizations:
II.A. Organizations for worker power: works councils; members-only unions; consumer, community and worker campaigns; political and advocacy organizations for workers; strengthening existing unions
II.B. Facilitating the formation and sustainability of powerful worker organizations: models for generation of revenue and for sustaining institutions; facilitating the choice of worker organization (setting the default, mandating elections)
III. Establishing the Scope and Power of Collective Action: new pathways for building power; strike rights; defining the scope for boycotts, pickets and other forms of collective action; right to collective action in the nonunion workplace
IV. Building Worker Power Through Benefits Provision and Enforcement:
IV.A. Benefits: using worker organizations to administer portable benefits; adapting a Ghent-type system for the U.S.; facilitating use of worker owned/controlled capital
IV.B. Enforcement: creative redesign of enforcement regimes to build worker power; reopening access to the courts for workers; addressing employer intransigence
V. Empowering Labor Law Reform By Updating Other Legal Regimes: antitrust; corporate; immigration; constitutional; criminal; consumer; voting rights and campaign finance