More and more of America’s workers want to join a union. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that nearly half of all nonunion workers—or more than 60 million people—would join a union today if given the chance. Public approval of unions—at 65 percent—is one of the highest marks in half a century. And COVID-19 has demonstrated in the starkest possible terms the importance of having a voice on the job.
Is it any wonder that America’s workers want to organize and join a union? Workers who come together in a union can bargain for higher wages and are much more likely to have health care and a pension. The union advantage is even greater for people of color, women, immigrants, and others who have confronted workplace discrimination. A union contract is a potent weapon against unequal pay and structural racism because it establishes fair and transparent systems for hiring and firing, wages and more. When we organize, workers also have a real say in critical workplace issues like time off to care for a loved one, the deployment of technology and protection from all kinds of discrimination.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 was a crown jewel of the New Deal. The NLRA ushered in a wave or worker organizing that changed the direction of America, building the greatest middle class the world has ever known. Showing that democracy—in the workplace and at the ballot box—could deliver for working people was essential to defeating fascism, a lesson we would do well to replicate today.
Yet ever since its passage, beginning with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, corporations and their political allies have conspired to render the law toothless. In recent decades, employers have been able to violate the NLRA with impunity, routinely denying workers our basic right to join with our coworkers for fairness on the job.
An entire union-busting industry now works nonstop to block workers from exercising our rights. Today, in more than 40 percent of all union organizing drives, employers break the law. They lie. They threaten and coerce. They routinely fire union supporters. Workers are forced to attend mandatory meetings with one item on the agenda: union-bashing. These messages of fear and intimidation come from the very people who control our paychecks, how much time we can spend with our family and whether we will have a job in six months or a year. And the fines for this illegal behavior are often a mere drop in the bucket.
This is how we can have a system of labor relations where more than 60 million people would vote to join a union, but only one in ten workers actually has one. As the collective strength of workers to negotiate for better pay and benefits has eroded, the gap between rich and poor has reached levels not experienced since the Great Depression. The latest research shows that the fall of union density has been a direct cause of rising inequality over the past four decades.
The result is an economy that does not work, where the vast majority of the people lack the incomes or the economic security to consume or invest. Another consequence is the fragility of democracy, as more and more people lose confidence in the system as a whole.
To fix our economy and save our democracy, it is time to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which modernizes the NLRA and will make it possible for tens of millions of workers to exercise our freedom to freely and fairly form a union and bargain together. The PRO Act, introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) in February, is landmark worker empowerment, civil rights and economic stimulus legislation, and a total game changer.
The PRO Act will make union elections fairer by prohibiting employers from forcing workers to attend "captive audience" meetings, where employers issue veiled threats and present anti-union propaganda to pressure workers to vote against the union.
The PRO Act will modernize the NLRA by stiffening penalties for employer violations to bring them in line with other workplace laws, imposing financial penalties on companies and individual corporate officers who violate the law and giving workers the option of bringing their case to federal court. This will make employers think twice before violating the law and put a stop to this epidemic of lawlessness by America’s wealthiest and most powerful corporations and their consultants and lawyers. The bill will ensure that all workers, regardless of immigration status, can access full remedies when their rights are trampled.
Once workers vote to form a union, the PRO Act will require the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to order that the employer commence bargaining a first contract. These orders would be enforced in district courts to ensure swift justice, avoiding the complex and drawn out process in the courts of appeals.
Too often, when workers choose to form a union, employers stall the bargaining process to avoid reaching an agreement. The PRO Act will establish a process for mediation and arbitration to help the parties achieve a first contract. This important change would make the freedom to negotiate a reality for countless workers who form unions but never get to enjoy the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement due to employers’ intentional delays.
The PRO Act recognizes that working people need the freedom to withhold our labor or engage in secondary picketing to be able to push for the workplace changes we need. It will protect employees' right to strike by preventing employers from hiring permanent replacement workers. It will also allow unrepresented employees to engage in collective action or class action lawsuits to enforce basic workplace rights, rather than being forced to arbitrate such claims alone.
The PRO Act will guarantee bargaining rights for working people who are misclassified as independent contractors—such as so-called “gig workers” for platform companies—as well as those who are misclassified as supervisors.
And it will finally end so-called "right to work" laws once and for all. These laws have been promoted by a network of billionaires and special interest groups in an effort to divide working people along racial lines and give more power to corporations at the expense of workers. They have had the effect of lowering wages and eroding pensions and health care coverage in states where they have been adopted. Right to work laws are some of the last vestiges of Jim Crow, steeped in a history of racism, and it is time to dump them into the garbage can of history.
Public employees face an equally dire situation. Currently, many states do not provide all state and local public sector workers the freedom to collectively bargain for wages and benefits. And across the country, organized anti-union forces are working to dismantle protections for public service workers who wish to exercise this right, reversing the progress that was made in prior decades.
These attacks not only harm the working people who protect public safety, maintain our infrastructure, teach our children and care for the elderly, they undermine the critical services public employees provide. Collective bargaining not only provides tangible benefits for public service workers, such as firefighters, corrections officers, health care professionals and teachers, it also produces measurable improvements in staffing, training, equipment and safety procedures. All of us are more secure when public service workers have a voice on the job.
During the pandemic, while many of us were “locked down,” public service workers were on the front lines delivering critical services to maintain the basic functioning of our communities. Public employees and other essential workers were and are caring for COVID-positive patients, risking life and health to serve the greater good. Ironically, many of the same workers denied the freedom to engage in bargaining are also denied even the minimal protections afforded by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Denied both regulatory protection and a voice on the job, millions of public workers continue to be treated as second class citizens.
The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act and legislation granting bargaining rights to firefighters, based on the previous Public Safety Employer Employee Cooperation Act, will provide public workers with a framework to organize and bargain collectively. These bills will provide an opportunity for states to adopt labor relations policies meeting minimum standards. If a state does not do so, all public employers in that state would be subject to a federal labor relations policy similar in breadth and scope to those covering millions of other public workers throughout the nation.
America’s labor movement, across sectors and regions, is mobilizing like never before to restore the right of working people to join together and negotiate for better pay and a voice on the job. That is why we did everything in our power to hold a pro-worker House; to win a pro-worker Senate; to win a pro-worker White House. This is what motivated us to make phone calls and canvass workplaces during this election cycle.
For too long, politicians have paid lip service to the demands of working people that Congress modernize and strengthen the laws protecting our freedom to negotiate. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have failed us. This time must be different.
So we urge congressional leadership to make labor law reform a top priority in the 117th Congress and we call on all members of Congress—Republicans and Democrats—to pass these bills, which President Biden has promised to sign into law.
To those who would oppose, delay or derail this legislation—do not ask the labor movement for a dollar or a door knock. We won’t be coming. No candidate for Congress or the White House should expect the support of the labor movement if they are not prepared to stand with workers in our fight for justice by endorsing, co-sponsoring and voting for labor law reform.
We are in a historic moment with an unmistakable mandate. The PRO Act and legislation to ensure public sector workers full bargaining rights must become the law of the land at once.