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Stop Trying to Make 1935 Happen (Again)–Trying to Revive Antiquated Debates Hurts our Modern Economy

June 21, 2023 — Modern Economy Project

“In my day, we walked in ten feet of snow to school, uphill, both ways… and adults all worked as full-time employees, strictly 9-5, a warehouse or office, with no exceptions…”

OK, that’s not exactly how the old saying goes, but you get the idea. There are folks in our country who have fixed ideas of how our economy operates – ideas that are woefully out-of-date and that fail to reflect the realities of our rapidly changing, innovative economic system.

Unfortunately, a lot of those folks are policymakers in our nation’s capital. And you can look no further than this week’s Senate Health, Education Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee proceedings.

Washington’s perspective is in desperate need of a refresh and a recognition that whenever decision makers try to contort and squeeze our 21st century economy into a 1930s-era box, it inevitably undermines everyday Americans and their economic opportunities. Such misguided efforts are already underway at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is advancing policies that haven’t been in place since the early 1900s.

As we have previously, let’s state the obvious: allowing workers to freely unionize is the law. Those in violation of the law should be held accountable – and in fact, are being held accountable.

Demonizing employers, however, isn’t what the American people want or believe. Most Americans go to work most days at an employer – large or small – and want to see Washington focusing on making sure that a hard day’s work pays a wage that allows American families to feel safe and feel prosperous.

Where can policymakers start to align labor policy with reality? One area ripe for attention is transparency and fairness in enforcement. Any objective observer looking at the current process for pursuing Unfair Labor Practices – or ULPs, complaints filed against employers – would see a bizarre, broken process that is highly susceptible to political weaponization, and crowds out legitimate labor violations with untold numbers of unsupported claims (including from individuals who are not even employed at the companies targeted by their complaints).

Policymakers can also look to the past for inspiration. In the 1940s, when the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) underwent some significant reforms, a young member of Congress threw his support behind amendments to restore to “employers the same rights of freedom of expression” that the NLRB had earlier removed. Later as a U.S. Senator, this same lawmaker would chair a conference committee further amending the NLRA with a focus on secret ballot elections, and said meaningful election campaigns – by unions and employers – were necessary so “both parties can present their viewpoints,” as a necessary “safeguard against rushing employees into an election where they are unfamiliar with the issues.”

That lawmaker was future President John F. Kennedy.

At the Modern Economy Project, we are a coalition across the economy. Women and minority advocates, workforce development groups, trade associations and think tanks across sectors and party lines, business interests large and small. In other words, a group as diverse as our economy. And when we talk to our constituents, they all agree, all of us in Washington are missing the point when it comes to how we talk, regulate and modernize the economy. That’s where we need to focus.

But unfortunately, it seems like we are on track for another year of the same nasty rhetoric – pitting workers and employers against one another.

If Washington’s economic dialogue doesn’t start to more clearly reflect the realities of our economy soon, we’re going to be left with the next generation looking back at Senate proceedings like this week’s and thinking, “OK (labor policy) Boomer.”

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