It’s been a dream of organized labor for decades. Yesterday the House of Representatives took a big step toward its realization. By a nearly party-line 224-194 vote, the House approved the misnamed Protecting the Right to Organize or PRO Act (H.R. 2474), which would strip employers and non-joining employees of their capacity to resist union aggression. Introduced last May by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and passed by the Education and Labor Committee in September, the measure, under the premise of “restoring” lost rights, among other things, would override state Right to Work laws, ban arbitration agreements, and force employers to recognize a union if a majority of workers sign membership pledge cards. Supporters are ecstatic for now, but they may have to wait a while for Senate action.
The PRO Act, at bottom, is a union power grab. Indeed, it is a power grab so extreme that it is questionable whether Congress would have considered much less passed such legislation a decade ago when both houses were in Democratic hands. But these are not typical times. For one thing, labor union membership as a share of the U.S. workforce has continued to decline. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unionized portion of the total labor force was only 10.3 percent in 2019. That’s about half what it was in 1983 and somewhat lower than a decade ago. Without government employees, that figure would be even lower. In 2019, fully 33.6 percent of all public-sector employees belonged to a union, compared to only 6.2 percent of all private-sector employees. The attrition in the private sector owes to a variety of larger national and world economic trends, not to any illegal suppression of workers’ rights to organize or bargain collectively. Labor leaders want those numbers a lot higher. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, for one, called yesterday’s vote “long overdue,” adding, with typical exaggeration, that workers’ rights have been “trampled on for decades by union-busting consultants and anti-worker politicians.”
A second reason for the introduction and passage of the PRO Act is that the current 116th Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, now leans well further to the Left than at any time during the 20th century or even the early part of this century. While unions long have enjoyed widespread support, especially among Democrats, even they didn’t have the clout to deliver legislation this radical. A hint of things to come happened in 2007 and again in 2009, when the House Democratic majority unveiled “card check” legislation that would force a private-sector employer to recognize a union as a collective bargaining agent if organizers for that union manage to secure signatures indicating a willingness to join from more than 50 percent of potentially affected workers. The measure passed the House the first time around, but died in the Senate. It died as well in 2009. Several years later, in 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., repackaged this proposal as the Workplace Democracy Act, but this effort, too, went nowhere. And in 2018, Rep. Bobby Scott and Sen. Patty Murray met the same end with their Worker’s Freedom to Negotiate Act.
The game changer was the 2018 midterm congressional elections, which produced an unusually large and radical freshman class. Rep. Scott and Sen. Murray quickly went to work expanding their previous legislation into the ultimate union wish list. Their PRO Act, an overhaul of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, would give unions almost complete leverage in organizing workplaces, conducting elections campaigns, negotiating contracts and filing grievances. Employers would be virtually hamstrung from voicing objections to an organizing campaign, and would be extremely vulnerable to costly and time-consuming lawsuits. Workers skeptical of the benefits of union membership, meanwhile, would have little or no option but to join.
As Union Corruption Update explained last November, the PRO Act is not about “protecting” anything except union interests. Individual workers for 85 years have had a federally-protected right to belong to a union and advance its goals. That is not at issue here. This measure is about assuring unions of favorable outcomes, regardless of the costs imposed upon the rest of the public. They already have this to a large extent now. The PRO Act would take these advantages to the next level and beyond. It is interest group politics in the raw, a product of organized labor getting what it wants when ideally positioned to exert pressure.
To summarize, the legislation would do the following: vacate all existing state Right to Work laws that protect private-sector employees from being fired for not paying dues to a union with an active collective bargaining agreement; mandate employer recognition of a union as a bargaining agent if a majority of employees sign pledge cards; authorize the National Labor Relations Board to intervene in an election dispute on behalf of a union in the event of an unsuccessful secret-ballot representation vote; force employers to bargain alongside its contractors or franchisees even if it has no control over the setting of wages, benefits, scheduling or other workplace standards; ban employment arbitration agreements authorizing employers to settle workplace disputes through negotiation rather than through the courts; authorize “secondary” boycotts by a union against employers beyond the one with whom it has a grievance; severely restrict the definition of an independent contractor so as to classify more workers as employees and thus generate more members; drastically shorten the time frame for an employer to respond to the filing of a union petition for a representation election; force employers to reveal the nature of outside legal advice regarding a union campaign – a clear interference with attorney-client privilege; deny an employer to keep its worksite open during a strike; and force employers to hand over worker personal information to union organizers, a virtual invitation to harassment.
H.R. 2474 had been languishing since its approval by the Education and Labor Committee by a 26-21 vote on September 25, but gained new life in January. With the business of President Trump’s impeachment completed weeks earlier, the full House could turn its attention to labor issues. In a letter addressed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn, 72 House Democrats called for swift passage. “For decades, American workers have endured attacks on their wages and workplace rights,” the letter read. “From 1980 to 2014, while income for the top one percent of earners grew by 205 percent, income for the bottom 50 percent of workers grew by only one percent. It doesn’t have to be this way.” Many colleagues apparently were in agreement, and the measure passed. Several members of each party crossed lines, but they did not remotely affect the outcome.
Supporters are delighted with this sudden turn of events, which they believe will reverse decades of workplace injustice. Rep. Scott, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, lauded the measure but lamented that there are “no meaningful penalties for predatory corporations that use unlawful tactics to discourage workers from organizing a union.” Rep. Pocan stated, “For far too long, workers have been stripped of their voices, losing their power to organize for better wages and benefits.” The AFL-CIO’s Trumka praised the outcome, vowing to defeat any and all opponents. “President Trump’s veto threat, though replete with inaccuracies and distortions, speaks volumes about who he is really fighting for,” he said. “We will not rest until the PRO Act is the law of the land and the rights of workers are restored.” Other union leaders are digging in for the big fight. “The voices of America’s working people are finally being heard,” remarked Communications Workers of America President Chris Shelton. “Members of Congress are starting to understand that the reason our economy has left so many families behind is that corporations have bent labor law to their will.” Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said, “The House agreed to restore fairness to the economy at a time when income inequality has stifled the ability of far too many hardworking Americans to earn a decent wage that allows them to support their families.” And AFSCME President Lee Saunders called the vote “a watershed moment for the labor movement.”
Opponents believe such statements conceal organized labor’s fear of further erosion of members, revenues and political influence. “Big Labor is in a panic over plummeting union membership,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. Labor leaders, she argued, need to “self-correct and increase transparency and accountability” rather than spending “three times as much money on political activity as on…organizing and representing workers.” White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney stated in a memo: “H.R. 2474 contains provisions that would kill jobs, violate workers’ privacy, restrict freedom of association, and roll back the administration’s successful deregulatory agenda.” He noted that it would destroy the gig economy, force layoffs or bankruptcies, let unions bypass secret-ballot elections and restrict worker freedom of association. National Retail Federation Vice President Lizzie Simmons called the PRO Act “a compilation of dozens of extreme labor policy proposals from the past several years lumped into one disastrous bill.”
The Senate, with a 53-47 Republican majority, is not about to act on this legislation anytime soon. Several dozen vociferous supporters won’t be enough to secure passage. Yet the biggest obstacle to passage may be the incontrovertible reality that the American economy is in very good shape. Unemployment is hovering around a mere 3.5 percent; GDP grew at around 2 percent in each of the Third and Fourth Quarters of 2019; and inflation is up around only 2 percent and is projected by the Federal Reserve to stay around that level during the next few years. The notion that our economy is working only for a tiny few is absurd. Many workers, in fact, reject union representation when given the opportunity to approve it (consider last year’s unsuccessful campaign by the United Auto Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga). And the reason is that they believe they have it pretty good. If the PRO Act does become law, that opinion might shift in a negative direction.