There is a silver lining to all the chaos and inequality created and exacerbated by the Trump administration.
The silver lining is that if Bernie Sanders is named to head the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), this position will give him the power to make significant pro-worker advances in many areas under the DOL’s jurisdiction.
But, as usual in politics, there’s a catch: All Biden cabinet positions have to be approved by the Senate. If Republicans control the Senate under Mitch McConnell, the odds are they will obstruct Biden as much as they obstructed Barak Obama. This would be a continuation of the promise McConnell and his Tea Party Republicans used before to make the confirmation process a horror show that could last for four years. So much for national reconciliation.
Worse, as this article in Politico states, “… if Biden was looking for a way to not pick Warren or Sanders while avoiding blowback from the left, the Republican-controlled Senate is now a ready-made excuse.”
Is Biden the Great Negotiator?
Biden has repeatedly said he can work with Republicans. This is a tall order, but if it happens and Bernie gets the position, he can make a huge impact.
This would be possible because of two reasons: the DOL’s vast oversight scope in the workplace and Bernie’s stated goal of actually helping working families.
Specifically, the DOL, created in 1913, plays critical roles in worker protection, income support, workplace safety, dispute mediation, employment training, and development. It administers and enforces over 180 federal laws.
The DOL also has a critical role in a more esoteric area, enforcing the vast Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and how fiduciaries behave under the Act.
ERISA is not a common discussion topic, but it covers almost all employer-sponsored retirement plans. ERISA sets the legal obligation that retirement plan sponsors and their designees must make decisions and manage ongoing operations for the exclusive benefit of plan participants.
This is in contrast to many instances when the interests of investment companies and plan administrators that run the retirement plans are put above those of the plan participants. While this sounds straightforward, violations of ERISA and related conflict-of-interest lawsuits are common and involve millions in misguided funds.
How Bernie Could Benefit Workers
Here are some of the most significant opportunities where the appointment of Bernie Sanders as Secretary of Labor could make the greatest positive changes:
- Sanders has the knowledge and will to rebuild and retrain the blue-collar workforce to make it more skilled. This can be done through new, effective job retraining programs focused on tech and emerging areas of the economy
- He can foster pro-corporate workplace policies to make it easier to form unions and give workers more on-the-job protections.
- If the Dems gain control of Congress, it will present opportunities to raise the minimum wages and provide other non-financial benefits to average workers, such as cheaper and more comprehensive health care and expanded child programs.
- The DOL oversees employer retirement programs, including 401(k)s and pensions. Most Americans feel insecure about their ability to be financially secure in retirement. The DOL can set basic suitability standards and, most importantly, enforcement. Enforcement actions will remind employers that only appropriate, low risk, low expense financial instruments belong in employee retirement offerings.
- The DOL also has the authority to enforce the fiduciary standard. This standard governs all employer decisions that cover investments in employee retirement plans. But because the fiduciary standard governs its sale and business practices, the financial services industry, the most powerful in Washington, has waged a decades-long war against a strict fiduciary standard since it would curtail their aggressive and non-transparent sales practices.
How Bernie Would Attract Trump Supporters
If Bernie Sanders becomes U.S. Secretary of Labor, he will attract Trump supporters looking for a better financial future.
Bernie attracted this group, mostly white males, with high school educations when he ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the Sanders campaign’s early stages, this same group gravitated towards him and his progressive message.
But thanks to a Republican propaganda campaign that positioned Trump as a fake populist, friend of the forgotten workers, and Clinton’s failure to build a practical working-class appeal, this group went for Trump.
The bottom line: Bernie knows how to bring this blue-collar working class back into the Democratic Party fold. Attracting this key group can happen if Bernie gets the position as head of the U.S. Department of Labor. From this position, he would have the platform to enact pro-worker policies while addressing wage and wealth inequality.
The Timing of a Sanders DOL Appointment is More Important Now Than Ever
Appointing Bernie as DOL Secretary in January 2021 would come just as wealth inequality is exceeding reached historic levels.
Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell now says the Covid virus is increasing income inequality now, more than ever. This is because the virus makes it possible for white-collar office workers to work from home, while blue-collar workers don’t have that option. Worse, blue-collar unemployment is rising faster than their counterparts in office jobs.
“Even after the unemployment rate goes down and there’s a vaccine, there’s going to be a probably substantial group of workers who are going to need support as they’re finding their way in the post-pandemic economy, because it’s going to be different in some fundamental ways,” Powell said.
Let’s See How Biden Builds His Cabinet
Bernie Sanders has already said he would accept this position. Biden still has to make his announcements about all the appointments in his cabinet.
This appointment, however, depends on who controls the Senate. The teetering Republican razor-thin majority has to be turned into a Democratic majority (with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris). This would hinge on the upcoming win of Democratic Senate candidate Ron Ossoff in Georgia. His win would make any Biden appointments into a reality. But unless Ossoff sins, any Biden appointments would be tempered and tilted to the right. That’s why it is essential to elect Ossoff.
In the interim, progressives are being patient and watching as the Biden administration gets its footing. One significant sign of their willingness to accept progressive policies will depend on how many pro-worker positions enter the Biden cabinet. While it’s premature to speculate on any Biden appointments, the focus on who gets these posts is exceptionally high. These appointments will be the crystal ball to see how Biden governs during his term.
So, as we wait for these appointments, it’s evident that Sanders’ credentials and his pro-worker positions since 1962 when he was a student at the University of Chicago make him an exceptional, non-corporate candidate to head the DOL. Biden’s search committee should take note. If you pass on Sanders for this position, you will be showing your cards on how you make decisions for the next four years.