The following post is authored by Brennen Cain, BlueGreen Alliance Policy Advisor.
This past Saturday marked May Day and International Workers Day. This day is meant to honor laborers across the world and all those who have fought for respect and dignity in the workplace. The United States was built on the backs of workers across every industry. Only when those workers organized and practiced their right to form unions did we see the middle-class flourish in our country. Now, due to decades of slowly chipping away existing labor law, our country is left with an insufficient patchwork of legislation protecting workers and their families. We need national legislation once again to equip our workers with the tools needed to organize and build back dignified jobs. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—which President Joe Biden included in his historic American Jobs Plan—is a meaningful step to bringing back the American middle class.
The PRO Act recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is now in front of the U.S. Senate. This vital legislation is an important step to ensuring workers are making family sustaining wages across the country. In the United States, workers in most industries have faced wage stagnation, increasingly difficult and dangerous conditions, and a wholesale effort to decimate their ability to organize for the past several decades. Our labor laws have been made toothless, and employers are exploiting their workers. Along with tougher working conditions, union membership has fallen dramatically from 24% in 1979 to under 11% now. To make matters worse, there are no meaningful penalties for corporations that use illegal tactics stop workers from exercising their right to organize.
Additionally, workers already facing record income inequality now face job losses due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the National Bureau of Economic Research Statistics, we know that unions consistently provide working Americans with 10% higher wages than non-unionized workers. Unionized workers also fare far better in a crisis—like the COVID-19 pandemic—because they have improved health and safety in the workplace and stronger protections for workers, the environment, and the community around them. Benefits like unemployment insurance, additional pay, paid sick time, and input in the terms of furloughs or other job-saving arrangements protect unionized workers better than non-unionized workers.
The PRO Act would take tangible steps to stem the tide of continued violations of the rights of working people to organize and would provide real by authorizing penalties for companies and executives who violate workers’ rights. It would also end prohibitions on collective bargaining and class-action litigations while prohibiting employers from permanently replacing striking employees.
The PRO Act would also amend how employees are defined to avoid misclassification as independent contractors. Currently, employers can intentionally misclassify some of their employees as “independent contractors,” which prohibits those workers from advocating for job improvements under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The PRO Act would adopt a straightforward test to identify which workers are employees under the NLRA and which workers are actually independent contractors outside the coverage of the NLRA. This type of litmus test is used in over half the states and the test does not require qualifying employees to join a union at their workplace.
This legislation would also strengthen remedies and enforcement for employees who are exercising their rights and creates a mediation and arbitration process for new unions. The PRO Act would restore fairness to our economy and strengthen the rights of workers across the country. Empowering workers to band together to negotiate better wages and safer working conditions is the best path forward to protecting our workers, addressing widespread wage inequality, and rebuilding America’s middle class while building a clean, thriving, and equitable economy.
In addition to the PRO Act, the Public Freedom to Negotiate Act (H.R. 6238), is a crucial protection for public employees. This bill sets a nationwide standard for collective bargaining rights that all states must provide to public sector workers. Additionally, public employers are required to recognize employees’ labor unions that are freely chosen by the majority of the employees voting.
We are at a critical crossroads for our country. As we work to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, we know we went into this crisis with several ongoing and intersecting crises; the climate crisis, economic inequality, and racial injustice. We need to look for solutions that are as interconnected as these crises. The Pro Act will help level the playing field by opening the door for family sustaining jobs.
As we build the economy of the future we should ensure that these jobs, economy wide, are good, union jobs and that they eliminate the disparities between job quality and who has traditionally had access to these jobs. This includes supporting and growing pathways into union jobs in the clean energy sector for workers of color and other segments historically left behind. Black Americans fare worse in the economy, having lower wages, less savings to fall back on, and significantly higher rates of poverty. Systemic racism has stacked the deck against people of color. Research has shown however, that through collective bargaining, workers are able to get more and better benefits such as health insurance, pensions, and safe working environments. The benefits for Black union members increase average wages by 28% more than non-union members.
The PRO Act also increases job safety and potentially protects from hazardous workplaces. Unionized workers have more freedom to blow the whistle in dangerous working environments and avert industrial accidents. Many unions also take firm positions on environmental issues like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and other actions designed to both reduce the carbon pollution driving the climate crisis and grow jobs in the clean energy economy.
The PRO Act can ensure that our transition to a clean economy is done so equitably and with good, union jobs as the standard, not the outlier. We need to make sure we have ample opportunity for union jobs across the economy, including in the clean energy sector.
The Biden administration rolled out a bold legislative agenda with the American Jobs Plan that not only updates our infrastructure, addresses the climate crisis head on, and protects the livelihoods of working class Americans—it builds out thousands of good paying union jobs in all corners of the economy. Congress must act to ensure this once in a generation package addresses the climate crisis and grows jobs and faith in the American economy.
Currently, there are 47 cosponsors of the PRO Act in the Senate. While this is promising momentum to get the bill to the President’s desk, 13 additional senators need to support the bill to get it past the legislative filibuster. It is also important that at least 50 senators support the policies in this legislation, should it go another legislative route through the reconciliation process.
By removing barriers to organizing, and promoting productive policies to ensure workers have a meaningful voice on the job, the PRO Act is the most significant labor legislation in a generation. We need to level the playing field for middle class Americans and ensure access to good union jobs isn’t inhibited by employers and unfair state law. The BlueGreen Alliance urges the U.S. Senate to pass the PRO Act and send it to the president’s desk.