by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In a sign of the importance of labor backing in the 2020 Democratic primary, several candidates have courted unions by endorsing the idea of “sectoral bargaining,” that is, collective bargaining on a large scale, involving multiple unions and companies, often covering an entire industry.
It’s a revival of an idea that fell out of favor in the late 1940s in part because of divisions within the labor movement. Many unions felt they didn’t need sectoral bargaining and could do better on their own.
The concept, or some version of it, has won backing from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Some labor unions and their allies see sectoral bargaining as the best way to strengthen unions, which have declined as a share of the workforce to 10.5%.
The term sectoral bargaining has no clear single definition, labor lawyers and historians note. There are numerous variations, most requiring the federal government to intervene and force multiple businesses to have to deal with one or more unions.
It was practiced for brief periods in the U.S. in the 1930s and ’40s before the current versions of the main federal labor laws, the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, were enacted. The main purpose was to set uniform wages and other standards so businesses didn’t have to compete on them. It faded away after World War II in part because many unions didn’t think they needed it.