A Department that Fights for Labor
Issue #
183
Sarah Jaffe
Secretary
Department of Labor

The very first thing I would do upon taking office as secretary of labor would be to get some comfortable shoes, find the biggest and loudest and most vibrant picket line — strike, lockout, wherever workers are fighting for their rights — and join in. Because ultimately, though good legislation and good executive branch work helps, really, what will revitalize labor is the workers taking the struggle into their own hands.

That said, here’s a few ideas that I’d push for, in addition to deeper, better, stronger and fiercer enforcement of laws holding bosses accountable for how they treat their workforce. It’s so far beyond time to raise the minimum wage that it’s a joke, and a good secretary of labor would lead that fight — I’d say to about $15 an hour and index it to inflation so we’re never stuck in this place again. A domestic workers’ bill of rights on a national scale, modeled after New York’s own, giving domestic workers labor protections. Stronger protections for farmworkers as well — these two types of work were deliberately left out of the National Labor Relations Act because at the time they were jobs done by people of color, and they deserve protections.

I’d pull together the smartest team of experts and advisers and strategists I could find and come up with a labor law reform that would really make an impact — take the good bits of the Employee Free Choice Act, really look at what else we could fix and come up with a package that would stop some of the bleeding from states like Wisconsin and Michigan and Indiana where Republican governors have hacked away union rights.

And finally, it’s time to revamp how we do unemployment insurance, too. Like most of our social safety net, it’s tied to one’s (former) job in a way that leaves too many people vulnerable. With unemployment still high and jobs still too scarce, it’s past time to start talking about an idea from the Nixon administration — a guaranteed minimum income/universal basic income. Nothing gives people power at work like not being terrified of being out of work.


Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist, a rabblerouser and contributor to Truthout, AlterNet, The Nation, Jacobin and others. Follow her exploits on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.