A fix for America’s broken labor law

END OF AN ERA: Labor surged between the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act and the 1947 business counter-attack known as the Taft-Hartley Act, which greatly walked back workers rights and tied labor’s hands. The PRO Act, if it passes, would end many of its restrictions and restore the spirit of the original law.

By Don McIntosh

On Feb. 4, House and Senate Democrats re-introduced a sweeping labor law reform bill that would restore workers’ right to unionize and bargain for a better life. Known as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, it passed the U.S. House last year 224 to 194, but the bill never even got a hearing in the Senate while Republicans controlled that chamber. Now that Democrats have retaken the Senate, passing it into law is a possibility.

The PRO Act would reverse 83 years of anti-union legislation and court decisions and lead to a dramatic increase in unionization and significant gains for tens of millions of working people in the United States.

Upon reintroduction, the bill had 41 cosponsors in the Senate, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and all four Oregon and Washington Senators: Jeff Merkley, Ron Wyden, Patty Murray, and Maria Cantwell. The reintroduced House version of the bill had 170 sponsors, including Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, and Peter DeFazio of Oregon.

The PRO Act is a comprehensive re-write of the law that governs how most private sector workers unionize. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act guaranteed most private sector workers the right to form unions and strike, and obligated employers to negotiate with them in good faith to try to secure collective bargaining agreements. But the law’s penalties were never much of a deterrent to employers, and its protections of workers’ union rights were dramatically weakened by later legislation and Supreme Court decisions. Employers gained the right to run antiunion campaigns, hold mandatory antiunion meetings, and permanently replace strikers. States especially in the South, passed “right to work” laws to weaken unions by starving them of financial resources. Their rights thus weakened, workers and their unions gradually lost power over the next 70 years.

What the Protect the right to organize (PRO) Act would do

  • Restore the right to strike, and re-legalize solidarity  You’d have to be over 90 years old to remember it, but when American workers first won the right to strike in 1935, they used it to support each other’s struggles. They refused to deliver or handle goods produced by scabs at another company. They boycotted businesses that bought or sold scab-made products. If a factory was on strike, workers at its suppliers and customers might take action too. All that was outlawed in 1947. And even before that, in 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that employers had the right to “permanently replace” strikers (except in strikes to protest labor law violations). What does a right to strike even mean if your employer also has the right to permanently replace you if you strike? The PRO Act would ban employer use of permanent striker replacements, make it clear that “intermittent” strikes count as strikes, and make sympathy and solidarity strikes legal again, restoring the incredible potential power of workers acting in solidarity.
  • No more employer interference in union campaigns If it’s supposed to be up to workers whether they want to unionize or not, why does the law give employers so much power to stop them? The PRO Act would remove employers from having any part in the process, and bar employers from requiring workers to attend anti union meetings, which is a standard practice today. Companies would also be required to disclose if they hire union busting consultants and how much they pay them; currently, a loophole exempts most of those disclosures.
  • No more toothless penalties Under current law, penalties for so-called “unfair labor practices” are a joke. Most often, all that an employer caught breaking the law must do is post a notice saying they won’t do it again. And there’s no real penalty for firing a worker for supporting a union—only a “remedy” which consists of reinstating the worker with back pay. Incredibly, any wages a worker makes after they’re illegally fired get subtracted from the back pay that the lawbreaking employer later owes them. The PRO Act would make employers start to think twice before breaking the law. It would establish meaningful monetary penalties for each violation, and make corporate directors and officers who participate in violations of workers’ rights or have knowledge of and fail to prevent such violations personally liable. It requires the NLRB to immediately seek an injunction to reinstate a fired union supporter while their case is pending. It gives the NLRB the power to enforce its own rulings like other federal agencies, instead of waiting for a decision from the Court of Appeals. It would allow workers to seek justice in court when an employer disciplines them for supporting union, just like in civil rights cases. And it would make it clear that workers have these rights regardless of their immigration status.
  • No more ‘right-to-work’ laws Right now many states have laws saying employers may not sign any union contract that requires workers to pay fees that cover the unions costs of bargaining and administering the contract. The PRO Act would strike those laws down.
  • No more fake bargaining Right now, employers are required to meet and bargain with unions in “good faith,” but they’re also allowed to say no to every union proposal for a year and then walk away for good. It’s so bad that nearly half the time workers win a union, they never get a first union contract. The PRO Act would make employers get serious about reaching a fair deal: If the two sides fail to reach agreement, the first contract would be decided by a neutral arbitrator.
  • No more misclassification The PRO Act would end the practice of employers misclassifying workers as independent contractors to void their union rights.
  • Inform workers of their rights Right now employers must post all kinds of notices about the minimum wage and overtime, for example. The PRO Act would require employers to post notices explaining that workers have union rights too.

    International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) has been campaigning since Nov. 30, 2020, to mobilize the labor movement to put pressure on Congress to pass the PRO Act. Above is one of many messages the campaign has put together to spread on social media. The campaign has gotten the support of 180 unions and 50 state labor federations and building trades councils. Individual union members can also get more information and sign up to help the campaign at PassTheProAct.org

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