It’s shaping up to be an historic autumn for Major League Baseball. The playoffs — sadly a distant memory for Colorado Rockies fans — are right around the corner, but what’s happening off the field is almost as exciting. Baseball players, like millions of other workers across the country, are joining a resurgent organized labor movement.
After years of looking for solutions for better pay and working conditions, word came in early September that a majority of minor-league baseball players voted to unionize. Then, the MLB players union announced they’ll be affiliating with AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation.
This news is the latest in a surge of labor victories around the country. Here in Colorado just this year, King Soopers grocery workers went on strike for a better contract and Starbucks employees at seven locations across the state voted to unionize.
Labor also racked up some big wins at the ballot and the state Capitol in recent years, giving new rights to workers like paid family and medical leave, paid sick days and wage theft protections. These recent trends are encouraging.
However, they’re coming after decades of anti-worker policies and lax federal labor law enforcement. Our current “enterprise-based” unionization system even stacks the deck against workers by limiting union votes to individual businesses (e.g. baristas at one local Starbucks location) instead of companywide. These policies didn’t just result in declining union membership; they also steeply reduced workers’ share of the profits they created.
While pro baseball players aren’t in the same, well, ballpark as most workers, consider the incredible wealth of MLB owners, 80% of whom are billionaires or multi-billionaires. MLB players might earn more than nearly all of us, but most minor leaguers earn closer to poverty wages. And their bosses? Orders of magnitude wealthier. That outsized power for a handful of wealthy people is hardly limited to pro sports.
Take inflation, which is hurting low-wage workers and their families most. Even though their bosses often hail front-line workers as pandemic heroes, do they actually care? Greedy corporate executives have underpaid them for years, relied on a broken supply chain that maximizes profits over common sense, and employed heavy-handed union busting tactics. Lately, they’ve even bragged to shareholders about using inflation as an excuse to pump up their already obscene profits.
Despite most low-wage workers dealing with reduced hours, layoffs, and high exposure to the coronavirus, they’ve worked hard and done everything they’ve been asked to do. For their troubles, they’ve dealt with being understaffed, overworked, and seeing their wage gains eaten up by inflation. Whether it’s athletes, grocery store employees or baristas, it’s easy to see why workers are organizing themselves.
And there’s a lot more we can be doing right here in Colorado to help workers even the playing field. A scorecard recently released by Oxfam, a global nonprofit focused on economic inequities, shows that while Colorado fares well as their ninth-best state to work in the country, our labor policies are holding us back from being higher.
So what would make Colorado’s economy look like one where all workers – whether they’re Black, Indigenous, white, Latino or Asian – can thrive? Oxfam says requiring workplace policies like setting a heat safety standard for outdoor workers, requiring notice when workers’ shifts change, or even a bill of rights for home care workers could help.
Another idea is something called sectoral bargaining. Instead of individual workers in individual businesses forming their own unions, the workers would band together and bargain for better pay and benefits as an entire sector of the economy. California recently became the first state in the country to allow this kind of policy for fast-food workers, and worker-rights advocates will be watching closely.
Labor policies like these don’t just help low-wage workers, they’re good for the entire economy. Compared to traditional enterprise-based union systems, a sectoral system also closes pay gaps along the lines of race and gender, promotes broad-based wage growth, reduces economic inequality, and boosts economic productivity.
In the same way that baseball players play for different teams, different owners, and different geographic locations but band together to boost their power during negotiations, sectoral bargaining could give people who work low-wage jobs far more power than they would have on their own.
So while we may not get to root for the Rockies in the playoffs any time soon, let’s root for the workers who power our economy. Let’s make our state a leader on labor policies that empower hardworking Coloradans and grow the middle class. It’ll be a home run.
Sophie Mariam is a labor policy analyst with the Colorado Fiscal Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocating for tax and economic policies that promote equity and widespread prosperity.
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