Our economy has been rigged by the rich and powerful, who have hoarded more and more wealth while workers actually producing the profits receive less and less. This has resulted in staggering levels of economic inequality - an inequality that is felt even more acutely by workers of color. The same CEOs and big corporations that are hoarding wealth have worked tirelessly to make it nearly impossible for workers to use their collective voice to push back.
One of the most proven and effective ways for workers to act collectively is to form a union and collectively bargain for better wages and benefits, but their right to do so has been under attack for decades. In fact, because of anti-worker legislation, right-wing court decisions, and lack of federal protections, the share of workers represented by a union is less than half of what it was 40 years ago.
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act (H.R. 842, S. 420), is designed to put a stop to these attacks, reverse many anti-worker laws across the country, and give workers a real voice in their workplace. Read on to learn more, make sure your Senators are cosponsors of the PRO Act, and help ensure Democrats get this bill across the finish line.
Why are labor unions so important?
Labor unions are one of the most effective tools to build power for workers, increase economic security, and spread wealth more equitably. Put simply, a union is a group of workers coming together to advocate collectively over their wages and working conditions. This typically looks like negotiating with their employer to create a union contract, which is agreed to by members of the union. By coming together and negotiating as a group, workers are able to secure a contract that better meets their needs than if each worker was simply negotiating individually. This is especially critical when employers insist on exploiting their workers in order to maximize profits for company executives and shareholders.
The benefits of more and stronger unions for workers and our economy are clear. Workers in a union earn on average 12% higher wages than non-union counterparts. That effect is even greater for Black workers, who earn around 14% more. Unions also raise standards across the economy in so many ways, from safer working conditions and better anti-discrimination policies, to better benefits like paid vacations and overtime compensation. This is particularly important in rural communities where workers may have fewer options for employers, so it is even more critical that the available jobs offer decent wages and safe working conditions.
Stronger unions also lead to a stronger democracy. All people should have a say in their government, and that right is made stronger when those people also have a say in the institutions that govern much of their lives - namely their workplace. The security that comes from a union also empowers people to exercise their power as a voter and citizen. As President Franklin Roosevelt said to Congress when introducing his economic bill of rights, “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” We can see this in practice as the states with the higher unionization rates also have the higher voter turnout, making our government more representative of the people.
It is clear that labor unions help workers by helpling meet their economic needs, help our economy by raising standards and reducing inequality, and help our democracy by empowering citizens and increasing civic participation.
Why is the PRO Act necessary?
Corporations have worked to degrade our country’s labor laws to make it incredibly difficult for workers to form a union, and painfully difficult to secure a contract even if they do. They’ve done this by weakening labor law at the federal level through lax enforcement and anti-worker rulemaking, through misclassifying employees as “independent contractors” to deny them their rights, in the courts though anti-worker decisions from right-wing justices, and at the state level through so-called “right-to-work” laws.
How employers engage in union busting
According to surveys, almost half of non-union workers would vote for a union if given the opportunity. But employers are able to retaliate against union organizers to discourage union drives, including illegally firing activists. Employers are charged with violating labor law in nearly 42% of all organizing campaigns - making it clear these union busting employers know they will not suffer meaningful consequences for breaking the law.
Employers can also interfere with the unionization process by refusing to bargain even when an overwhelming majority of workers agree to form the union. Then, when the union election heads to a vote, employers can draw out the process with frivolous appeals, all the while harassing and intimidating union supports, holding captive audience meetings to mislead workers about the union, and hiring expensive law firms to help with “union avoidance.” Even if the workers manage to overcome that obstruction, employers can intentionally slow walk the bargaining process to prevent workers from experiencing any improvements - 37% of new unions don’t have a first contract a full two years after forming.
The PRO Act creates enforceable standards and penalties for companies that engage in these union busting tactics, and establishes a clear process for ensuring workers are able to successfully bargain a contract after they form a union. Together these two policies would go a long way towards guaranteeing that workers who want a union are not simply prevented by abusive employers.
Worker “misclassification” robs workers of their rights
Labor laws work by allowing employees to bargain with their employers, but some employers have successfully watered down the definition of “employee” to strip workers of their labor rights. They do this by “misclassifying” workers as “independent contractors,” even if those workers aren’t running their own businesses and perform duties just as a normal employee would. Employers might claim this gives workers more freedom or empowers them, but it’s actually just a way to avoid any accountability for violating federal labor laws.
The PRO Act creates a simple and enforceable test to make sure that all employees are properly classified - referred to as the “ABC Test.” This is a simple, three-part test that says a worker is presumed to be an employee unless: 1) the worker is free from control from the employer, 2) the worker performs work outside the usual business of the employer, and 3) the worker has taken independent steps to operate as an independent contractor, like incorporating as a small business or advertising their services. The ABC test would guarantee that workers can actually negotiate with their employers instead of letting employers deny workers their rights. The ABC test would not eliminate actual independent contractors, and freelancers or true small business owners would continue to be free to do business as they see fit.
Preventing misclassification is a simple way to make sure that labor laws actually work in practice and that no worker is at the mercy of their employer lying about their job status.
State “Right-to-Work” laws undermine workers’ voices
Since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 made them possible, 27 states have adopted “right-to-work” laws that harm the ability of workers to advocate for themselves in the workplace. These laws were expressly designed during the Jim Crow era as an effort by wealthy white business owners to divide Black and white workers and prevent them uniting behind their common interests as workers, especially in the South. Unions are required to provide representation to all members of the bargaining unit, but these laws allow for “free riding” where members who receive benefits from the union can avoid “fair share fees” that ensure the union has resources to provide representation during disputes or bargain their next contract.
Put simply, these laws are meant to silence working people and erode workplace democracy. In addition to diminishing the ability of workers to advocate for better wages and benefits, these laws have even been shown to increase fatalities on the job because unions are less able to advocate for common sense safety measures.
Fortunately, in addition to making it easier for workers to form a union and bargain their contract, the PRO Act would build on state-level efforts and finally put an end to right-to-work laws. The PRO Act is an historic opportunity to completely eliminate this relic of Jim Crow policy and empower workers across the country.
So, how are we going to pass the PRO Act?
Joe Biden ran on supporting the PRO Act, and fortunately it already passed the House of Representatives on March 11, 2021. Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and was immediately cosponsored by nearly all Democrats in the Senate. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Republicans have added this legislation to the long list of necessary bills they intend to obstruct with the filibuster. So that means two things:
- First, we need to make sure that every Democrat in the Senate cosponsors the PRO Act so it can advance with a simple majority of votes. As of 5/20, the Democratic Senators who have yet to cosponsor are: Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). (You can check on your Senators with the most up-to-date list here!);
- Next, we need to eliminate the filibuster and stop Mitch McConnell’s stranglehold on progress.
Steps you can take to fight for the PRO Act
If your Senator is not yet a cosponsor of the PRO Act: call and tell them you support this critical bill and expect them to become a cosponsor as soon as possible.
If your Senator is already a cosponsor of the PRO Act: call and tell them you support it too and ask why they’re letting the Jim Crow filibuster block it from becoming law.
And keep an eye out for other opportunities to engage locally and nationally to advance this game changing bill. Together, as Indivisible activists in partnership with movement allies and workers organizing across the country, we can pass the PRO Act to give workers a voice on the job and strengthen our democracy.