In 2015, the United Nations Member States, including the U.S., unanimously approved 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. These goals are nonbinding, and each nation is to implement them based on its own priorities and circumstances. In the April issue of the Environmental Law Reporter (ELR), 22 experts recommend steps that the Biden-Harris administration should take now to advance each of the SDGs, both domestically and abroad. I wrote the section on SDG goal number eight, “Decent Work.”
The overall ELR article, “Making America A Better Place for All,” argues that the SDGs are a critical normative framework the United States should use to improve human quality of life, freedom, and opportunity by integrating its economic and social development with environmental protection. The authors seeks to contribute to a robust public discussion about how to accelerate the transition to a sustainable society and make America a better place for all.
The sub-goals of SDG 8, “Decent Work,” include inclusive growth, high earnings, and full employment. The United States, a rich country, has ample resources for all to enjoy good jobs and family-sustaining incomes. As is well known, however, inequality delivers big shares of income to the top 1% and top 10% in the United States, while working families struggle. Reducing inequality is thus critical to enabling the U.S. to achieve inclusive growth, raise hourly earnings, and make progress on other indicators the UN includes in Goal 8.
The most powerful way to reduce inequality is to have strong labor rights and labor unions. Unfortunately, the United States has not even ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions on freedom of association and on organizing and collective bargaining rights.
Moreover, U.S. employers routinely violate international labor rights standards. As the Amazon union election in Alabama just illustrated, when U.S. workers seek a union election, U.S. employers have great scope to “persuade” workers not to vote yes. When U.S. employers go beyond the law, firing union activists or threatening facility closure, penalties are a slap on the wrist. In other countries, employers have no role in unionization decisions, which are considered workers’ choices.
My section highlighted six actions that President Biden should take to help the United States bolster labor rights, reduce inequality, and thereby achieve “Decent Work”:
• Appoint people throughout the administration, not just in labor agencies, who support union rights and know how to advance them within their agency.
• Use executive authority and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) appointments to strengthen labor rights, including reversing executive and NLRB actions on President Trump’s watch.
• Working with labor and business, flesh out “build back better” visions—high-wage, high-skill, high-union density—in every industry and promote implementation of those visions with all executive branch leverage (e.g., funding and regulation).
• Seek to enact the PRO Act (Protecting the Right to Organize Act), the strongest proposed federal labor reform in at least 40 years, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives on March 9.
• Pursue “leveling up” federalism. Help progressive states and localities to strengthen labor rights and implement inclusive sectoral visions that go beyond what is possible nationally.
• Use the bully pulpit to have workers’ and unions’ backs in organizing efforts. President Biden did this in his February 28, 2021, message in advance of the Amazon–Alabama union vote. But given the intimidation workers face in organizing campaigns, he will need to do it often and as specifically as possible. The suggestion in the ELI article, “President Biden should say, repeatedly, ‘The President wants you to join a union, and encourage workers to unionize at specific companies, such as Google, Amazon, or University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.”
The good news is that the Biden administration has taken early actions in several areas, consistent with our recommendations. The sobering news, again as illustrated by Amazon, is that it will take years of determined effort to put the U.S. back on a path to inclusive growth.
The development of the overall ELR article was led by Prof. John Dernbach of Harrisburg’s Widener University Law School and Prof. Scott Schang of Wake Forest Law School. In their introduction, Dernbach and Schang say, “The United States faces significant headwinds with economic and racial inequality, spikes in hunger and poverty, political polarization, and declines in infrastructure reliability and environmental protection. In this context, the SDGs provide an important framework for…recovery [from the pandemic recession], including inclusive growth, a strengthened public health system, and clean energy.”
Making America A Better Place for All: Sustainable Development Recommendations for the Biden Administration is available for free download at https://www.eli.org/sites/default/files/docs/elr_pdf/51.10310.pdf.