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Sanders’s Bill to Expand Workplace Democracy Passes Senate in Omnibus

The Worker Ownership, Readiness, and Knowledge (WORK) Act aims to help create and expand employee ownership centers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks ahead of Election Day, on November 6, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Legislation that Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled 13 years ago to help boost workplace democracy and curb worsening inequality in the United States was included in the $1.7 trillion omnibus package approved by the Senate on Thursday.

Modeled on the success of employee ownership centers in Ohio and Vermont, Sanders’ (I-Vt.) Worker Ownership, Readiness, and Knowledge (WORK) Act authorizes a $50 million grant program to help create and expand employee ownership centers around the country.

As Sanders’ office explained:

These centers provide workers with the tools they need to own their own businesses through employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) or eligible worker-owned cooperatives. This act will authorize the [U.S.] Department of Labor to provide education and outreach, training, and technical support for local and state programs dedicated to the promotion of employee ownership and participation. Sanders helped establish the Vermont Employee Ownership Center in 2001 and first introduced the WORK Act in 2009. Sanders also secured $158,000 for the Vermont Employee Ownership Center as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 earlier this year.

“Workers deserve an ownership stake in the companies they work for, a say in the decisions that impact their lives, and a fair share of the profits that their work makes possible,” Sanders said Thursday in a statement.

“This modest but effective legislation will go a long way to ensuring workers have the tools they need to have a seat at the table they worked to build,” he continued. “By making sure workers have their seat and their voices are heard, we can start to create an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few.”

Research has shown that worker ownership leads to higher wages, better benefits, a more secure retirement, and reduced gender and racial wealth disparities. In addition, employee-owned enterprises see lower turnover and increased output. Sanders’ office attributes these positive effects to improved “employee morale, dedication, creativity, and productivity, as workers share in profits and have more control over their own work lives.”

Other studies have shown that worker-owned companies in the U.S. are less likely to outsource jobs and more likely to experience stronger profits and shareholder returns. According to one recent analysis, scaling up employee ownership could quadruple the share of wealth held by the bottom 50% of U.S. households.

In 2019, roughly 25 million workers in the U.S. already owned some stock in the company where they were employed, according to Sanders’ office. More than 10,000 enterprises currently use some type of employee ownership model, improving material circumstances for millions of working people nationwide.

“On behalf of the more than 10 million American households that already benefit from an ESOP, we are deeply grateful to Sen. Sanders for his dedication to include the WORK Act in the omnibus,” Jim Bonham, president and CEO of the ESOP Association, said Thursday.

“Starting years ago with the Vermont Employee Ownership Center that he helped create, we have learned that increased education, awareness, and feasibility grants directly results in more employee-owned businesses and now those lessons can be applied across the nation,” said Bonham. “More employee-owned businesses mean more stable local jobs, higher incomes, increased retirement savings, better work environments, and more productivity for our economy.”

The omnibus package, which funds the federal government through 2023, also includes the first budget increase for the National Labor Relations Board in nearly a decade, as Sanders’ office noted.

The massive, 4,100-plus-page bill now heads to the House. It must be approved by lawmakers in the lower chamber and signed into law by President Joe Biden by Friday to avoid a painful government shutdown.

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