U.S. workers are fed up with unsafe working conditions, low pay, forced overtime, expired pandemic unemployment benefits and loss of eviction moratoriums. They are striking, fighting and demanding the basics. Riding this wave of militancy, organized labor hopes to reverse the decades-long decline in the unionization rate by getting the U.S. Congress to enact the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.
If the Act passed it would remove major hurdles that prevent workers from winning union representation. But getting the bill over the finish line will require far more than calling in favors from labor-backed Senators and Representatives.
Ambitious legislation. The PRO Act is sweeping and addresses many of the anti-union regulations that exist today. It would curtail the union-busting industrial complex from intimidating workers from organizing, which is what happened with the Amazon union campaign led by Black workers in Alabama. Currently, in more than 40% of all representation elections, employers are charged with breaking the law. The negligible penalties incurred only encourage the bosses to harass and fire employees who try to organize. The Act would impose a $50,000 fine for each illegal action that a company uses to interfere with the right to unionize.
The Act would also override state “right-to-work” laws that were established in the 1940s by racist business owners and politicians in the South (and their Northern allies) who were committed to segregation and keeping Black workers’ wages lower to ensure their profits.
Today there are 27 states that prevent unions from collecting agency fees from workers they represent who are not members. These workers share all the benefits of a negotiated contract without having to pay their fair share.
Another proviso closes loopholes in labor law that allow employers to classify their employees as independent contractors in order to avoid paying taxes, ensuring protections and providing benefits. Additional language lifts the ban on secondary boycotts of companies who do business with an offending employer. Given that corporations are global and have multiple divisions, this would allow workers to stand in solidarity with employees at other companies. The law would also prohibit bosses from permanently replacing workers who participate in a strike. And because nearly half of newly formed unions do not reach a contract settlement, the Act requires mediation and arbitration to ensure a collective bargaining agreement.
What it will take to win. The PRO Act passed the House in March 2021, but Senate Democrats need 50 sponsors to move the bill forward. Currently there are 49 co-sponsors, with one Democrat holding out. Even though labor leaders have warned Senate Democrats that they need to pass the legislation, it will take more than working with Capitol Hill lobbyists to turn the Act into law.
History shows that even when there is a substantial Democratic majority in both houses, labor has failed to wrest significant concessions from Congress. Also, the PRO Act will probably be headed for a Senate filibuster that would kill the bill. Working people need these reforms and it won’t be enough for the legislation just to get a hearing.
Instead of relying on the Democratic Party and President Biden to voluntarily repay their debt to working people, labor leaders should embrace the struggles that their rank-and-file members are waging.
Workers are already fighting against the pandemic era cutbacks and attacks that affect all aspects of their lives. Organized labor must also broaden its agenda to include demands to extend unemployment benefits and eviction moratoriums. Safe working conditions are still a crucial battle, as well as healthcare benefits and employer-paid pensions.
Massive federally funded jobs programs are also a dire need. The attacks on abortion rights, the need for quality and affordable childcare, immigration reform, and reining in the police are also issues that impact workers of all colors and genders and must be addressed.
These issues affect all workers. If organized labor were to use its resources to fight for workers’ needs, it would go far in both convincing workers to unionize and to help pass the PRO Act so that they can be in a trade union.
The AFL-CIO’s “Build Back Better with Unions — Pass the PRO Act” campaign states that unions “help promote racial justice and eradicate all kinds of discrimination” and are the “single best tool to close racial and gender wage gaps.” It goes on to say that “the union advantage is greater for Black, Latino, women, immigrant, LGBTQ+ and other workers who have experienced workplace discrimination.” Recognizing the stratification of the working class is a way to be inclusive and strengthen the workers’ movement.
Lessons of history. Today’s widespread rebellions hearken back to the titanic battles during the Great Depression, which proved that victories and legal protections for working people are won in the streets. Franklin D. Roosevelt was forced to create the New Deal in 1933 in response to workers’ militancy. In 1934, workers organized general strikes in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis. Out of those fights came the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935. The NLRA protected “the rights of private sector workers … to improve their wages and working conditions.” However, like most laws that help the majority, they have been watered down with pro-employer legislation.
Also, the 1964 Voting Rights Act was signed by a Texas Democrat because of the massive Civil Rights movement. The Supreme Court ruled that abortion is a constitutional right in 1973 under pressure from the feminist movement.
Labor can draw upon a proud legacy of resistance and uprisings in its drive to overhaul the current regressive labor laws. If unions build a coordinated fight for both the PRO Act and for the needs of all workers, they can turn the aspirations of the unorganized into a reality.
Kato is a retired member of AFSCME 3299 who organized her co-workers to fight for better wages. Send feedback to FSnews@socialism.com.
65% of the public support unions.
12% of workers are in unions.
48% of nonunion workers would join a union if given the choice.