Bernie Sanders on Workers’ Rights
The U.S. economy is not working for most working people. As productivity has gone up, business profits have increased. Workers’ wages, however, have not increased significantly. In fact, over the past 40 years the increasing cost of living has meant that median wages have actually fallen relative to inflation.
Millions of jobs have been shipped overseas and workers face a constant threat of even more jobs vanishing due to outsourcing or automation. As a result, many American workers are now forced to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. An estimated 66.5 percent of women and 85.8 percent of men are working more than 40 hours a week. And many of these workers have no paid vacation or paid sick leave.
Throughout his career, Bernie Sanders has fought to improve the lives of working people. Since 2015 he has been a leader in the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15/hr, and believes that if the majority of workers decide to form a union at their workplace, they should be able to do so. Bernie stands for “real family values”, which means giving workers the time and resources to spend meaningful time with their loved ones, and the ability to take time off to care for them and themselves when they are sick.
Fair wages: Workers should not have to work more hours just to get by. We need a living wage. All workers should be paid equally for the work they do.
Unions: Labor unions are important for all workers and should be supported and encouraged.
Worker Co-ops: Workers Co-ops should be supported and encouraged.
Keeping Jobs in the U.S.: We must stand against disastrous trade deals that offshore decent-paying jobs.
Paid Family Leave, Sick Leave and Vacation: Parents should have paid family leave so they can stay home with their newborn children. Sick workers should be able to stay home when they are unwell. Employers should provide vacation time to their employees.
Pension Benefits: Workers who are owed pension benefits from their employer should be paid those benefits.
“Some politicians still say a $15 minimum wage is “too radical. “Here’s what’s radical: in the wealthiest country in the world 40 million people live in poverty and 40% of our people can’t afford basic needs.That’s unacceptable, and it’s why we must guarantee a living wage.” – Bernie Sanders, April 17, 2019
Bernie Sanders believes that people who work at least 40 hours a week should not be living in poverty. American workers are the most productive of any major country in the world, but wages are not keeping up with inflation or productivity. There is an ongoing disparity in wages based on gender and race.
According to a Center for American Progress study, 70 percent of American children live in households where all adults are employed. However, the U.S. is the only country developed country without national paid parental leave (we’ll talk more about this later).
How many hours do we work compared to the rest of the world?
According to the OECD, Americans worked 54 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 119 hours more than British workers, 299 hours more than French workers, and 425 hours more than German workers in 2013. According to a Gallup poll, the average American with a full-time job is working well over 40 hours a week.
If Americans are working so much, why are so many stuck in poverty?
Today, many people have a hard time finding good paying full time jobs. At the same time businesses schedule part-time workers for fewer hours to avoid providing benefits for those employees. Many Americans work two or three jobs to pay for health insurance and to make ends meet.
Why do we need a higher minimum wage?
Over the past 40 years, the cost of living has increased significantly while workers’ wages have stayed relatively flat, despite increased productivity. Many people earning the minimum wage live in poverty despite working many hours and having several jobs.
$7.25 per hour ($300/week before taxes) is not enough money to pay the bills and support a family. Even when working full-time and year-round, one in nine U.S. workers are living in poverty. The effects of low wages have a ripple effect throughout the economic and social spheres. As wages decrease, real purchasing power decreases and workers must work more just get by. Nearly 40 percent of hourly-paid workers are now working more than 40 hours a week.
Bernie believes that raising the minimum wage is long overdue. He has been at the forefront of the fight to make the minimum wage a living wage.
“Just a few short years ago, we were told that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was ‘radical.’ But a grassroots movement of millions of workers throughout this country refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. It is not a radical idea to say a job should lift you out of poverty, not keep you in it. The current $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage is a starvation wage. It must be increased to a living wage of $15 an hour.”
See our Minimum Wage article to learn more!
All workers deserve to be paid fairly
Women are paid less than men and minority workers are paid less than their white counterparts for doing the same work. There are persistent wage gaps for workers based on gender, race and race within gender, sexual orientation, and country of birth. Bernie believes workers deserve equal pay for equal work and has fought throughout his political career to end wage discrimination
Check out our Equal Pay article to learn more.
What other workers’ rights does Bernie support that need to be protected?
There are many federal agencies that can be used to protect workers rights including OSHA, EEOC, the NLRB, etc… In one example, Bernie called on OSHA to investigate the working conditions at Amazon. As President, Bernie will have the authority to appoint commissioner and use his executive authority to uphold and strengthen some of these agencies and programs.
I’m looking for information about what Bernie has done to support undocumented workers and agricultural laborers.
Bernie supported the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to end the shocking exploitation of workers in Florida’s tomato fields — the effort covered both undocumented and agricultural laborers. But you’re probably looking for a lot more than that. Learn more about what he did on the Immigration, Latino Rights, and Agriculture issue pages.
Bernie believes we must rebuild trade unions so we can rebuild the middle class. Strengthening trade unions is a central part of Bernie’s campaign. In 2017, Bernie was given a 100 percent Pro-Union rating by the AFL-CIO and has a lifetime score of 98%. During the 2016 campaign, Bernie was endorsed by the following national and international unions:
- APWU – American Postal Workers Union, representing 250,000 members
- ATU – Amalgamated Transit Union, representing 190,000 members
- CWA – Communication Workers of America, representing 700,000 members
- ILWU – International Longshore and Warehouse Union, representing 5,000 members
- NNU – National Nurses United, representing 11,000 members
- NUHW – National Union of Healthcare Workers, representing 11,000 members
- UE – United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, representing 35,900 members
Bernie was also endorsed by state and local union organizations as diverse as the State AFL-CIO in Vermont and South Carolina, multiple local unions of the Teamsters, Teachers (both AFT and NEA), Carpenters, Culinary Workers, Iron Workers, Service Employees, Transport Workers, Steelworkers and others.
While it’s still too early for most unions to announce their 2020 endorsements, supporters are busy gathering support in their local unions. Chuck Jones of United Steelworkers Local 1999 has spearheaded Labor for Bernie to provide organizing tools and sample resolutions to help rank-and-file members pass endorsement resolutions within their locals. Similar efforts are underway at Educators for Bernie and Teamsters for Bernie.
At an AFT event in May 2019, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten introduced Bernie by saying, “Elections are about choices, and I’m glad Bernie Sanders is here. He’s on the side of workers and fights for good jobs He’s on the side of students and fights for free college. He’s on the side of families and fights for Medicare for All.”
As more and more unions line up to support Bernie you can find updates on the endorsements page!
Why do unions feel so strongly about Bernie?
There’s a reason union members support Bernie: he doesn’t just say he supports unions, he actually joins the picket lines and provides public support for striking workers.
“Standing with workers on picket lines is something I’ve done my entire life– that’s what I do and what I believe. Unions are my family.”
And, Bernie doesn’t just support unions elsewhere, he works with unionized workers every day. Bernie Sanders 2020 became the first major Presidential campaign to have a unionized workforce. Bernie’s campaign staff joined UFCW Local #400 and signed their first union contract in early May.
What recent strikes has Bernie supported?
In February, Bernie stood with the United Electrical Union workers at Wabtec Locomotive plant, in Erie, Pennsylvania, stating, “Americans are sick and tired of corporate America and their wealthy CEOs ripping off working families…I’m proud to stand with the locomotive manufacturing workers of [United Electrical Union] Local 506 and 618 in their fight against GE/Wabtec to maintain decent wages and working conditions.”
In April, Bernie joined the UCLA picket line in California and spoke in support of the AAUP-AFT Rutgers professors in New Jersey, and the NY Nurses Association. Bernie stood with UFAW Stop and Shop workers throughout the northeast during their 11-day strike. Bernie also stood with 1,600 striking grad students during their 3-week strike. In May, Bernie backed the Uber and Lyft drivers striking across 10 major U.S. cities. Bernie spoke in Lordstown, Ohio, where the General Motors automobile plant closed, resulting in the loss of 1,400 manufacturing jobs.
What has Bernie said about the way corporations and CEOs treat their workers?
Bernie has directly named corporations and CEOs for their greed and anti-labor practices. He called out GM for outsourcing jobs, closing plants, and moving to Mexico while providing excessive CEO compensation. Bernie also called out Siemens for shipping jobs overseas while receiving billions in federal contracts. Bernie also called on Disney to use its excessive profits to pay its workers a living wage instead of lavishing millions on its CEO.
Targeting the Sears bankruptcy scheme, Bernie said, “The Sears bankruptcy is a prime example of what a rigged economy looks like. Vulture capitalists have hollowed out a company to line their own pockets. It’s time for an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy.”
Bernie has called out Amazon and Walmart for paying their workers so poorly that many need public benefits just to feed their families. He even attended the Walmart shareholders meeting in June at the request of a Walmart employee to present a resolution demanding a wage increase to $15 an hour.
So what is a union? And what does collective bargaining mean?
A union represents workers interests and negotiates with the employer on behalf of the workers. At the end of successful negotiations. the employer and the workers sign a contract that generally includes wages, pensions and other benefits, basic job security, guarantees of safe working conditions, and some structure that gives workers a voice in the workplace.
Without a union, individual employees must negotiate their own wages and other working conditions on their own. This gives an advantage to the employer who can just fire someone who makes demands. With a union, the workers join together to bargain collectively to negotiate an agreement, this gives strength to employees because the employer must negotiate and cannot continue business as usual or just fire someone for asking for higher wages or improved working conditions.
For employers, unions increase the stability of the workforce and productivity both of which increase profits. The union also serves as an intermediary to address issues in the workplace with a set procedure that reduces conflict and is fairer for everyone.
Why do we not see as many union members nowadays?
Union membership has declined since 1968. The reasons for declining union membership include globalization and automation in factories, so fewer workers are needed in the union-dominated manufacturing sector. Union-busting laws and anti-union propaganda have also taken a toll. Employers encourage workers to view union dues as an unnecessary expense and to fear union “bosses” more than their company managers.
As union participation declines, income inequality has risen. As unions weaken, so does the middle class. A study by the Center for American Progress has shown that if unionization rates increased by 10 percentage points nationwide, the typical middle-class household—unionized or not—would earn $1,479 more each year. Dollar for dollar, strengthening unions is nearly as important to the middle class as boosting college-graduation rates.
As Bernie has said, “Anyone who understands American history knows that it was the trade union movement that built the middle class in this country—and it is the trade union movement that is going to rebuild the disappearing middle class in America once again.”
This graph shows how the middle class has shrunk with declining union membership.
What has Bernie said about efforts to weaken and undermine unions?
Bernie plainly states that “Corporate America and the billionaire class have been waging a 40-year war against the trade union movement in America. That is not a war they are going to win. We will expand and strengthen the trade union movement.” Bernie recognizes that unions have historically contributed to a flourishing middle class and are necessary to protect jobs, increase wages, and to continue to improve safe working conditions for everybody.
How can Bernie use the National Labor Relations Board to help workers?
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) protects workers rights to organize and have elections to decide whether to form a union, and also hears claims of unfair labor practices.
Recent anti-labor appointees to the NLRB risk more decisions that will further strengthen corporate interests over workers’ rights. Since NLRB members are presidential appointees, this is an area where electing Bernie would have an immediate impact in strengthening workers’ rights.
Speaking before the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in April, Bernie pledged, “We are going to put pro-worker appointees on the National Labor Relations Board and the National Mediation Board. When we are in the White House, we are going to reject Donald Trump’s efforts to gut Amtrak and turn decent-paying union jobs into outsourced contract jobs. Instead, we are going to fully fund Amtrak and invest in high speed-rail. When we are in the White House, we are going to pass the Workplace Democracy Act that I will be re-introducing in the Senate.”
What are right-to-work laws and how do they affect unions?
So-called “right-to-work” laws have been passed in 27 states. These state laws limit the ability to require workers in a unionized workplace to pay union dues. This means workers in these states unfairly benefit from the union’s collective bargaining efforts without paying to support the unions efforts to win those gains. Additionally, when fewer workers pay dues, the union has fewer resources to defend workers’ rights. So these “right-to-work” laws actually help strengthen corporate interests while weakening workers’ rights.
Reinforcing the union busting right-to-work laws, is the Janus Decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which requires unions to provide “fair representation” to non-paying employees regardless of the cost to the union. In California alone, 48,598 public sector employees stopped paying union dues within the first 8 months after the decision. This decision imposes a de facto “right-to-work” rule on public-sector unions in the 22 states that do not have a right-to-work law.
The net effect of reducing the strength of unions is lower wages, reduced benefits, and more dangerous workplaces. The average worker in a right-to-work state—whether unionized or not—earns $1,500 less per year than workers in states without right-to-work laws. Twelve of the 15 states with the worst pay gaps between men and women are right-to-work states. Safety standards are lower in right-to-work states and the number of discrimination claims filed with the EEOC are 36% higher.
What would Bernie’s Workplace Democracy Act do help workers?
In his very first term in Congress back in 1992, Bernie introduced the Workplace Democracy Act, a comprehensive bill designed to empower workers to more easily organize unions, negotiate with employers, and ban anti-union laws. Despite strong Republican opposition Bernie did not give up, he reintroduced the bill every two years for nearly a decade. In 2018, Bernie and Congressman Mark Pocan introduced the bill again. Enacting the Workplace Democracy Act is part of Bernie’s platform in 2020.
Specifically, the Workplace Democracy Act would do five things:
- repeal right-to-work laws
- return to the card check system for union certification
- penalize employers who fire workers for union organizing
- restore union members’ freedom of speech
- curb the power of union-busters
Speaking before the International Association of Machinists’ and Aerospace Workers convention, Bernie said, “In order to rebuild the middle class in America and create an economy that works for all of us, not just those on top, we have got to rebuild, strengthen and expand the trade union movement in America. We need elected officials and candidates at every level to get serious about forcefully speaking out for unions. It’s not good enough for candidates to say they like ‘workers’ or the ‘middle class.’ We need to specifically and explicitly support trade UNIONS.”
In a recent press release, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters also endorsed Bernie’s Workplace Democracy Act. Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said, “If lawmakers want to expand the middle class, this bill is the vehicle to get it done.”
What other union friendly policy proposals does Bernie support?
Bernie voted for the Allowing Collective Bargaining for Public Safety Officers bill, which required the Federal Labor Relations Authority to enforce the ability of public safety officers to engage in collective bargaining. He also voted against a 2011 amendment which would have terminated collective bargaining rights for employees of the Transportation Security Administration.
In 2018, Bernie Sanders cosponsored the Reward Work Act, which requires one third of the board of directors of a publicly traded company to be employee representatives who are elected by the employees It also prohibits public companies from repurchasing their shares on the open market.
I’ve heard Bernie mention worker co-ops. What are those?
Worker co-ops are businesses owned by their own workers. Employees invest in the business and decisions are made democratically. Currently, there are nearly 400 worker-owned cooperatives in the U.S. in a wide range of industries. While the majority are small businesses, with fewer than 50 workers, there are also notable larger enterprises.
Can employee owned businesses really succeed?
There are many successful cases of worker-owned businesses, and studies suggest that worker co-ops are as productive as comparable traditional businesses. Bernie supports these co-ops because, like unions, they give employees more influence over their workplace and work lives.
“Simply put, when employees have an ownership stake in their company, they will not ship their own jobs to China to increase their profits,” Bernie said. “They will be more productive. And, they will earn a better living.”
The retirement of many baby boomer business owners is an opportunity to convert businesses to worker owned enterprises
How has Bernie tried to advance employee ownership of their workplaces?
In 2014 and 2017, Bernie introduced the United States Employee Ownership Bank Act, which would provide $500 million in low-interest rate loans and other financial assistance to help workers purchase businesses through an employee stock ownership plan or a worker-owned cooperative.
In 2014, Bernie also introduced the Worker Ownership, Readiness, and Knowledge Act, which would provide loans and general support to worker-owned businesses
And in 2019, Bernie introduced a bill to help workers around the country form employee-owned businesses. The WORK Act – modeled on the success of the Vermont Employee Ownership Center – would provide more than $45 million to establish and expand employee ownership centers, which provide training and technical support for programs promoting employee ownership.
Bernie said in a statement:
“When employees own their own companies, when they are involved in the decision-making that impacts their jobs, the results are almost always positive – absenteeism goes down, worker productivity goes up and people stay at their jobs for a longer period of time. When workers are respected on the job as full human beings who can help make the decisions for a profitable company, morale goes up.”
Keeping Jobs in the U.S.
“I am proud to be the only candidate running for president who not only voted against NAFTA and PNTR with China, but also stood on the picket lines with union workers opposing these unfair trade deals.” – Bernie Sanders, April 30, 2019
Bernie has led the fight against unfair free trade agreements that favor large corporations at the expense of workers and environmental regulations. These unfair free trade agreements have resulted in millions of decent paying middle class jobs being shipped overseas and the closing of tens of thousands of factories across the U.S.
What is a free trade agreement?
Free trade agreements are pacts between countries that are designed to reduce trade barriers such as tariffs and trade quotas, to increase exports and imports, and to increase consumer access to lower-priced goods. Free trade is not the same thing as Fair trade. Free Trade focuses on reducing trade barriers while Fair trade, which is what Bernie supports, focuses on workers and working conditions.
Why does Bernie oppose most trade agreements?
Free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR to China), and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement are unfair and unbalanced because they fail to protect workers and have allowed too many American jobs to move overseas.
In a May 2019 op-ed, Bernie wrote: “Since 2001, nearly 60,000 manufacturing plants in this country have been shut down and we have lost over 4.7 million decent paying manufacturing jobs. NAFTA has led to the loss of nearly 700,000 jobs. PNTR with China has led to the loss of 2.7 million jobs. Our trade agreement with South Korea has led to the loss of about 75,000 jobs. While bad trade agreements are not the only reason why manufacturing jobs in the U.S. have declined, they are an important factor.”
Besides causing massive job losses, these unfair trade agreements do not enforce food, health, and safety regulations; environmental laws; child labor laws, and most significantly, labor regulations that protect the rights of workers to unionize. Strikes are suppressed in the outsourced countries and efforts to unionize are met with violence, repression, and harsh measures against employees. And here in the US, workers in unionized workplaces have no recourse as factories close and can do nothing but simply watch as jobs disappear, sometimes even being forced to train their replacements.
Bernie believes in negotiating trade agreements that create a strong disincentive for companies to relocate overseas by protecting U.S. workers wages and promoting better wages for the workers who create the products we import. In other words, all workers should be paid fairly for the work they do.
Bernie explained in a speech at Westminster College that as we “take into account the outrageous income and wealth inequality that exists globally and in our own country.” Doing so “recognizes that our safety and welfare is bound up with the safety and welfare of others around the world”.
Other than opposing free trade agreements, how does Bernie plan to keep jobs in the U.S.?
In 2018, Bernie cosponsored the Made in America Act, which was introduced by Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. This bill would ensure that federal infrastructure programs use some materials that are made in the U.S.
Bernie introduced the Workplace Democracy Act, which would ban anti-union laws and make it easier for workers to organize a union. Bernie introduced the Workplace Democracy Act during his very first term in Congress in 1992 and re-introduced the bill every two years for nearly a decade.
Bernie has also voted for the Allowing Collective Bargaining for Public Safety Officers bill, which required the Federal Labor Relations Authority to enforce the ability of public safety officers to engage in collective bargaining. He also voted against a 2011 amendment which would have terminated collective bargaining rights for employees of the Transportation Security Administration.
In 2017, Bernie joined Senate Democrats in supporting the Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure plan, which also called for a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure. In 2015, Bernie introduced the Rebuild America Act, which called for an investment of $1 trillion over 5 years to rebuild and expand on our country’s infrastructure and to create over 13 million good-paying jobs. It would be paid for by closing corporate income tax loopholes and overseas tax havens.
Find out more about Bernie’s plans for creating American jobs on the Economy and Jobs page.
Paid Family Leave, Sick Leave and Vacation
Paid Family Leave
According to a Center for American Progress study, 70 percent of American children live in households where all adults are employed. The U.S. is the only country developed country without a national paid parental leave benefit.
Bernie supports paid family leave so new parents can spend time with their newborn child during the first weeks and months of that baby’s life.
Most American moms do not have paid family leave and must return to work right after giving birth because they cannot afford to take time off. Paid Family Leave that provides time for fathers to bond with their newborn is even rarer. As Bernie says, this is the exact opposite of “family values.”
Why does Bernie think paid time off after pregnancy is so important?
“It’s an outrage that millions of women in this country are forced back to work after giving birth, simply because they don’t have the income to stay home with their newborn babies… When a mother can’t spend time with her newborn child during the first weeks and months of life, that is not a family value.”
Not only is paid family leave good for mothers and children, it is good form the economy. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that, “firms incur few costs in addition to replacing pay (when paid leave is provided by the employer) and instead experience some substantial benefits.”
The United States is one of only a handful of countries in the 193 member United Nations that does not mandate paid maternity leave. Other countries with no maternity leave laws are: Papua New Guinea, Suriname, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Liberia. In a survey of 152 countries, 119 countries offer paid 12 weeks of maternity leave with 62 of those countries providing 14 weeks paid leave.
What’s Bernie doing about it?
Bernie was also a cosponsor of the FAMILY Act, introduced in June 2015, which would guarantee at least twelve weeks of paid family and medical leave. This bill, would allow workers to take paid time off after a new birth, to care for a sick loved one, or if they themselves are ill. Payroll taxes on workers would be raised by $1.61 a week to fund the paid leave. Bernie said of the modest tax increase, “I happen to think $1.61 for three months paid family and medical leave is a very good investment for working families of this country,”
He is supporting various efforts to make some form of paid family leave, paid sick leave, or paid vacation time available to all American workers.
I have paid vacation time — so do a lot of people I know. How many Americans actually get no paid vacation?
Well, consider that a privilege! Check out this graph by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
What’s Bernie doing about paid vacation time?
Bernie introduced a bill of his own in June 2015 called the Guaranteed Paid Vacation Act, which would provide 10 days of paid time off to anyone who’s worked for over a year at a business that employs at least 15 people.
Also, many workers go to work sick because they don’t have paid sick leave. Bernie believes this is bad for the American people, and bad for the economy.
What do other countries do?
Americans also work more than anyone else in the industrialized world: we put in longer hours, more time over the weekends, and take less vacation.
Check out this graphic from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — we work even harder than workers in Japan, who are known for their productivity:
When people are sick they should not have to go to work. It’s a matter of protecting the workers health as well as others in the workplace.
The United States is the only developed country without mandatory paid sick leave.
How about paid time off to take care of sick loved ones? And when you’re sick yourself?
Bernie believes that paid time off to care for sick loved ones, and to recuperate when you yourself are ill, contributes to better health, and greater happiness and economic productivity.
That’s fair. I don’t want to work when I’m feeling sick. What’s Bernie doing about it?
Bernie is supporting various efforts to make some form of paid family leave, paid sick leave, or paid vacation time available to all American workers.
“In 2014 a provision was slipped into a spending bill that cut pensions by up to 65%. If I’m elected president we’ll immediately stop cuts to multi-employer pension plans. If the crooks on Wall Street can get bailed out, we can damn well afford to protect Americans’ pensions.” – Bernie Sanders, May 8, 2019
Pensions are usually employer-sponsored retirement plans. Employers offer the plans often as an incentive for workers to take and keep a job with them. In exchange the worker may accept lower wages or stay at a job to keep the benefits. Often workers pay into the pension plan, sometimes there’s an arrangement like a matching contribution. The employee relies on the fact that the pension will be there when they retire so most people invest in the pension plan by contributing to it and don’t usually set aside even more savings for retirement.
In 2014, Congress passed a law that allowed drastic cuts to multiemployer pension benefits programs (MBPs). Before this law was passed, it was illegal to make cuts to a pension plan that was already agreed to and earned by employees. Now retired workers are losing a lot of money from their pensions. Bernie believes that we need to repeal this law to reinstate pensions so that seniors who were promised financial security during retirement will get what they were promised. Bernie plans to reinstate all pension programs that were cut by closing tax loopholes for wealthy corporations.
What is a multi-employer benefits program?
A multi-employer benefits program (MBP) is an agreement between two or more companies to provide benefits to all of their employees. These benefits programs are usually agreed to by workers’ unions through collective bargaining.
There are two types of plans: welfare MBPs and pension MBPs. Welfare MBPs provide: group life insurance, disability insurance, medical insurance, legal insurance, unemployment insurance, or paid vacation. Pension MBPs provide retirement income benefits. For both of these types of plans, all workers pay into the MBP so they can access the benefits when they need them. The size of the benefits depends on the number of years the employee worked and paid into the plan.
What exactly is the problem?
In 2014, President Obama signed the Omnibus Spending Law (H.R.83), which allowed companies drastically cut existing pension MBPs. This has resulted in much lower funding for these plans. In 2012, there were over 2000 pension MBPs with a net of over $600 billion. It is now estimated that the scope of these pension plans, and the benefits they pay to retirees, will be cut by 60 percent.
Though retirees over 80 are completely protected from these cuts, retirees from ages 75 to 79 are only partially protected, and those under 75 are generally not protected at all. This means that most workers who paid into pension MBPs for their whole working lives will now lose most of their earned pensions. Retired women, in particular, are grievously affected by this law.
Wow, that is really unfair! Why is this happening?
Many pension funds were seriously underfunded with a shortfall of over $1 trillion. The companies and states that were supposed to pay into the funds had not paid in enough money to payout the benefits they promised to their workers. The cuts implemented by the Omnibus Spending Law are a desperate attempt to deal with this shortfall while still providing pension benefits to the most vulnerable – retirees over 80.
Where did all this pension money go?
Many economists agree that the biggest reason for the shortfall is that the Great Recession of 2008 led to massive losses in investment portfolios, including for MBPs. This caused state governments to shift their budgets in a way that stabilized their interests at the expense of workers’ retirement security. Furthermore, instead of being distributed fairly to all employees, most of the money collected through pension MBPs has been siphoned exclusively into the salaries and retirement incomes of top-level executives.
This sounds like a serious problem. What has Bernie said about this?
Bernie voted against the passage of the Omnibus Spending Law, saying, “instead of investing in rebuilding our infrastructure to create millions of decent-paying jobs, this bad bill would let companies renege on the promises they made to their workers by cutting pension benefits of current retirees.”
In June 2015, Bernie introduced the Keep Our Pension Promises Act (KOPPA), which would reinstate pension MBPs and establish a legacy fund to continue funding the plans. Bernie plans on funding the program by closing tax loopholes for wealthy corporations.
In a questionnaire administered by the AFL-CIO, Bernie also argued:
“The most important thing we can do to both preserve and expand defined benefit pension plans is to make it easier for workers to join unions. One of the most significant reasons for the decline in defined benefit pension plans is that the rights of workers to join together and bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions have been severely undermined.”