The Time for the PRO Act is Now

Congress can help balance a playing field that's been tilted toward the very powerful.

"City Building" from "America Today," a mural by Thomas Hart Benton at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On March 9 the US House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (The PRO Act). It's now in the hands of the Senate to be made law. If enacted this bill will reinforce the rights of workers all over America to unionize — rights that have been attacked and whittled away for years by powerful business interests and their collaborators in government.

 

Why do workers need the right to organize?

 

First, we live in a free country and no group – not a government nor a board of directors – should have the authority to tell an American adult they are not allowed to partner with their colleagues in the interest of negotiating in fairness with their managers. Do any other similar prohibitions exist in this country? And yet 27 states have what they call “Right to Work” laws making unionization basically illegal.

 

Second, we know what America looks like when workers’ rights are left to the whim of management. When employees have no larger group representing their interests, bosses have the ability to withhold pay, deny medical benefits, terminate with bias and without cause, and have little incentive to create a safe workplace.

 

Right to Work advocates have a couple arguments against these claims. Neither holds water. First, they point out that an employee can sue their employer if conditions are so tragic. But one quick comparison of an individual’s slim financial and legal capabilities against those of a large corporation reveals most such lawsuits to be a fool’s errand.

 

They also argue that the free marketplace keeps businesses honest. They say that the abuse of staff only creates business liabilities like high turnover and low production quality. The resulting loss of revenues and the ability for employees to move to better-behaving companies forces all to behave better. There is no need for unions.

 

Well, one need only look at the current state of the New York City construction industry to see the wrongness of that position. Since 2008, more and more non-unionized “open shop” construction firms are operating here. Many of these companies benefit from a glut of undocumented individuals who may have construction skills and are seeking work. This population is vulnerable to threats of deportation. They have no union training nor anyone of influence representing them. Management holds all the cards.

 

And here is the example of what happens when management has no incentive to negotiate with labor. Workers from open shop firms in NYC report being utterly powerless when told to perform tasks that are overly dangerous, or for which they have not been trained, or when they are denied full pay or overtime, or when they discover they’ve been paying insurance premiums but there is no insurance. All of these offenses are on the record with the New York City Construction Fraud Task Force. They’ve criminally charged and fined several open-shop construction companies for wage-theft, insurance fraud, tax evasion, safety violations and more.

The "Right to Work" advocates claim that market forces maintain fairness and safety for workers, that we don't need unions. They could not be more wrong.  

Here are five provisions

in the PRO Act:

 

  1. So-called right-to-work laws in more than two dozen states allow workers in union-represented workplaces to opt out of the union, and not pay union dues. At the same time, such workers are still covered under the wage and benefits provisions of the union contract. The PRO Act would allow unions to override such laws and collect dues from those who opt out, in order to cover the cost of collective bargaining and administration of the contract.

  2. Employee interference and influence in union elections would be forbidden. Company-sponsored meetings — with mandatory attendance — are often used to lobby against a union organizing drive. Such meetings would be illegal. Additionally, employees would be able to cast a ballot in union organizing elections at a location away from company property.

  3. Often, even successful union organizing drives fail to result in an agreement on a first contract between labor and management. The PRO Act would remedy that by allowing newly certified unions to seek arbitration and mediation to settle such impasses in negotiations.

  4. The law would prevent an employer from using its employee's immigration status against them when determining the terms of their employment.

  5. It would establish monetary penalties for companies and executives that violate workers' rights. Corporate directors and other officers of the company could also be held liable.

And it’s getting worse, not better. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that safety violations, injuries and deaths are up at NYC construction sites. And according to “Deadly Skyline,” the 2020 New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) report, “Non-union job sites continue to be especially dangerous for workers, with 86% of worker fatalities occurring on non-union sites in New York State and 83% in New York City.”

 

Why are these accidents not happening as frequently on job sites where unions operate? Because union workers have organized, they’ve prioritized safety and craftsmanship, and they have representation protecting their interests in negotiations with management. Union members are benefitting from the power of organizing.

 

The time may be right for the PRO Act. We’ve all seen the imbalance of power between management and labor in which the top 10% of the nation commands over 50% of the country’s gross national product, leaving the smaller half to the other 90% of us. The last time we were so imbalanced was before the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which enabled the creation and proliferation of unions. In the years that followed, America developed a thriving middle class and our prosperity boomed. Of course, in the intervening years, powerful enemies of unions have waged the war on the NLA that resulted in Right to Work laws and the demonization of unions.

 

But today, approval of unions is at a decade-long high. The House has responded with a legislative salvo with the PRO Act. If you hope for a more stable middle class and more equal prosperity for all, then support this act by calling (866-832-1560) or writing your US Senator. The time is now.

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