The U.S. House of Representatives Thursday night passed a bill to strengthen protections for workers trying to join together in a union.
The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would create new penalties for employers who illegally intimidate or fire workers for organizing a union. It would repeal state right-to-work laws, protect the right to strike and give workers new tools for bargaining a first contract swiftly.
A top legislative priority for organized labor since Democrats took control of the House a year ago, the PRO Act would be the most consequential labor-law reform in 80 years – if it weren’t dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Still, the House vote affirms that labor-law reform remains a key piece of Democrats’ election-year agenda.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the PRO Act “the most significant piece of legislation that will come before Congress this year,” and said the nation’s largest labor federation would use today’s vote to draw a line in the sand.
“Those who would oppose, derail or delay this important legislation, do not ask us for a dollar or a door-knock. We won’t be coming,” Trumka said during a Capitol press conference. “But stand with us today, and we’ll stand with you tomorrow.”
Trumka’s message echoed loud and clear with federal lawmakers from Minnesota, who received calls from over 100 union members and retirees gathered for a conference in Minneapolis today.
“Our outdated labor laws are no longer effective to make sure working people have their voices heard,” the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s Melissa Hysing told activists attending the federation’s two-day campaigns conference. “The PRO Act restores fairness to the economy and ensures working people share in the massive wealth we have helped create.”
Four DFLers co-sponsored the PRO Act: Reps. Angie Craig, Betty McCollum, Ilhan Omar and Collin Peterson. Rep. Dean Phillips also voted in favor of the bill.
McCollum, who represents Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District, said the PRO Act would restore fairness to the economy and help curb rising income inequality.
“The PRO Act strengthens workers’ power to stand together and negotiate for higher pay and better benefits,” she said. “For women who are part of a union, the gender pay gap is nearly eliminated, and union members of color have nearly five times the median wealth of their non-union counterparts.
“Anti-union and anti-worker attacks have led to the decline of the middle class. It’s time we pass the PRO Act and restore the constitutional right to organize, putting power back into the hands of American workers.”
Despite polls showing historically high public support for unions last year, the percentage of U.S. workers who belong to unions continued a four-decade decline. An MIT survey from 2018 found about half of private-sector workers, or 60 million people, wanted a union. Only 6.4% actually have one.
The disconnect, union organizers say, stems from bosses’ increasing disregard for laws meant to protect workers during union organizing drives. Employers broke the law in 41.5% of union elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board in 2016 and 2017.
“They just view it as a cost of doing business,” Jeff Lachler, a Minneapolis-based organizer with the Communications Workers of America, said. “There’s every incentive in the world to break the law, and there’s no real downside as long as you succeed in keeping the union out.”
While federal law prohibits employers from harassing, threatening or firing workers for supporting a union drive, the penalties for breaking those laws lack teeth.
In many cases, employers found guilty of breaking the law must post a notice acknowledging their misdeeds or making workers aware of their rights. In the case of workers fired for union activity, employers have to reinstate them with back pay, if they haven’t already moved on to another job.
But the process, which includes board filings, hearings and appeals, is lengthy, and that works to employers’ benefit, Lachler said.
“Even if they have to bring the worker back, there are no punitive damages,” he said. “In the meantime, they’ve succeeded in scaring everybody else from going through with an organizing drive.”
In addition to giving the NLRB authority to fine employers who break labor law, the PRO Act allows workers to seek justice in court. That would be key for workers who can’t afford to wait for the lengthy NLRB process to run its course.
Other provisions of the bill would prohibit employers from permanently replacing workers who strike, and make so-called “secondary strikes” legal, allowing workers to strike in solidarity with their co-workers.
The PRO Act would make mediation and arbitration mandatory to settle lengthy disputes over first contracts. Nearly half of newly formed unions fail to reach a contract with the employers.
The bill also includes provisions to stop employers from misclassifying workers as “independent contractors” in order to avoid workers comp and other liabilities. It would make fast-food companies and other franchising corporations more responsible for labor practices throughout their chain.
And it would require employers to disclose whether they are paying an outside firm to help defeat a union organizing campaign. A recent analysis found employers pay about $340 million annually to outside firms for “union avoidance.”