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Harvard Law School Initiative Calls for Clean Slate in America’s Labor Laws

Two Harvard Law Professors released a report calling to overturn the labor laws in America.
Two Harvard Law Professors released a report calling to overturn the labor laws in America. By Allison G. Lee
By Kelsey J. Griffin, Crimson Staff Writer

An initiative of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program — called Clean Slate for Worker Power — released its final report Thursday calling to overhaul American labor laws and increase workers’ collective bargaining power.

Law School Faculty members Sharon Block and Benjamin I. Sachs led the project. The initiative brought together leading activists and scholars to recommend policies aimed at empowering working people.

The report claims that an extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of few people has created economic and political inequality in the United States.

“The country’s wealthiest 20 people own more wealth than half of the nation combined — 20 people with more wealth than 152 million others,” the report states.

It argues that current labor laws have fostered systematic racial and gender oppression. It also asserts that labor laws exclude vulnerable workers from vital labor protections and devalue the work performed by these workers.

“Labor, such as caregiving, historically performed by women and people of color — and women of color and Black women in particular under the institution of slavery — has long been undervalued,” the report reads. “In many cases, statutorily and in common parlance, caregiving labor is not even considered ‘work.’”

Block and Sachs said they believe addressing this economic and political inequality would require a completely new system of labor law, rather than simply adjusting current policies.

“We both spent a lot of our career thinking about smaller changes to labor law, and we both came to the realization that that time has passed. The challenges are so great that we really need to think about a new system, not just new ways of doing the old system,” Block said.

The report recommends that labor laws better enable working people to build collective organizations to increase their leverage with employers and in the political system.

“Our primary objective is enhancing worker power so that workers can countervail the power of corporations and the wealthy,” Sachs said.

The policy recommendations aim to increase worker representation and inclusion by expanding the coverage of labor laws for independent contractors, as well as undocumented, incarcerated, and disabled workers.

The report lays out an array of options for alternative worker representation in addition to labor unions, such as work monitors — employees who would ensure compliance with federal labor regulations.

“To make democracy at work a right, and not a fight, the statute should provide for a range of representational structures made available to workers according to a system of graduated rights,” the report states.

Another policy idea outlined by the report is a federal mandate that employers must provide paid leave for voting and engaging in civic activities. The report also recommends a switch to a sectoral bargaining system, in which a union would bargain on behalf of all workers in an industry, rather than just those within a single company.

Block and Sachs said they hope the release of this report sparks conversation about the state of America’s labor laws and increases the representation and rights of workers.

“This isn't something to put on the back burner,” Block said. “This is something that has to be front and center in light of the growing challenges, both in the economy and our democracy.”

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at kelsey.griffin@thecrimson.com.

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