New Federal Bill Would Make It Easier to Join a Union

A record number of workers in the United States decided to go on strike in 2018. Now congressional Democrats are trying to harness that momentum to pass a massive labor reform bill that would make it easier for workers to join unions and collectively bargain.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act was introduced on May 2 by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia). The bill would usher in a multitude of protections for workers and give them more bargaining power.

Some of its features include penalties for businesses that illegally fire employees, sped-up union elections that prevent employers from holding anti-union meetings with their staff, and National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protections for many independent contractors who aren’t currently classified as employees.

The bill also specifically offers new safeguards for workers that go on strike. Employers would be prohibited from permanently replacing striking workers with scab labor. Plus, the bill would repeal a longtime ban on boycotting “secondary” companies. The current ban makes it illegal for a given union to boycott a separate corporation in solidarity with a strike.

Boosting Bargaining Power

The PRO Act is an important effort to bring U.S. labor law into the 21st century — giving working people more power at a time when it is desperately needed,” said Celine McNicholas, the Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) director of government affairs and labor counsel, in a statement. “Congress should pass the PRO Act immediately and give working people what they need most: fairness and a voice on the job.”

During the first legislative hearing on the PRO Act, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut) cited the recent Stop & Shop strike as an example of why collective bargaining rights are so important. In April, over 30,000 grocery store employees went on strike across a number of New England locations to fight proposed pension cuts, bonus rollbacks and an end to overtime pay. The employees prevailed despite being up against an enormously powerful company: Stop & Shop is owned by Ahold Delhaize, a Dutch retailer that claims to have generated $44 billion in U.S. sales in 2018.

“From the standpoint of the people who stock the shelves and work the cashier lines … who felt they took their economic destiny into their own hands by exercising their right to strike, it obviously paid off big time,” said Courtney.

The Stop & Shop victory is not an isolated incident. In 2018, striking teachers captivated the country. The biggest labor story of 2018 was undoubtedly the teacher strike wave that ripped through a number of red states starting with West Virginia. However, those work stoppages were part of a much wider trend. According to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 20 major work stoppages in 2018 involving about 485,000 workers. That’s the highest number of major work stoppages since 2007 and the highest number of workers participating in them since 1986.

The PRO Act is predictably backed by organized labor, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka also testified at the hearing in support of the legislation at the hearing. “Something is happening in America,” said Trumka. “Workers are embracing collective action with a fervor I haven’t seen in a generation. It is time for our laws to catch up. It is time to make the PRO Act the law of the land.”

Fighting Trump’s Anti-Worker Policies

While organized labor has seen strikes and work stoppages increase, unions have also endured over two years of pro-employer policies from the Donald Trump administration. In March 2019, the Labor Department rolled back an Obama-era overtime policy which would have raised wages for more than 8 million workers. In April, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) released an advice memo declaring that Uber drivers are contractors not employees, which means they aren’t legally entitled to a number of benefits. This all comes in the wake of last year’s momentous Janus v. AFSCME decision, in which the conservative-controlled Supreme Court upended over 40 years of precedent by ruling that public sector union fees violate employees’ First Amendment rights.

In addition to enduring the anti-worker policies of the Trump administration, organized labor also had to endure eight years of being frequently snubbed by moderate Democrats and the Obama administration. The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) was a landmark piece of legislation developed a decade ago that also aimed to make organizing workplaces easier. The EFCA was pushed vociferously by labor leaders and progressives, but moderate Democrats ended up killing the bill’s most important provision, and Obama ultimately abandoned the bill over fears that it was too politically risky.

On a local level, 27 states now have “right to work” laws on the books which prohibit unions from collecting mandatory fees from employees thus making it more difficult to organize and fight back against workplace abuses. According to an EPI study, wages in states with “right to work” laws are 3.1 percent lower than those in states without such laws, even when controlling for other factors. The PRO Act would reverse portions of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act that allow “right to work” laws to remain legal, requiring unionized workers in every state to contribute a fair-share fee toward the cost of collective bargaining. It would also be a huge boon for rideshare drivers and other “independent contractors” working in the gig economy, as they would be granted the same employee protections as other professions.

A recent unionization effort in Michigan, a “right to work” state, demonstrates the need for more robust worker protections. In 2018, Nya Njee quit her job as a barista at an Ann Arbor-based coffee shop called Mighty Good Coffee. Njee accused the company’s management of racial discrimination in a Facebook post, claiming that she was denied raises as a result of being Black. Njee’s accusations inspired the store’s employees to form a union, fight for changes at the workplace, and reach out to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for guidance throughout the process. The company’s managers initially accepted the union, but during their first contract negotiation they suddenly closed all their cafes and laid off their staff. A letter to the workers from the company’s attorney claimed that the managers had “concluded that they are not well suited to operate a retail operation” and had “found the experience to be overly stressful.”

The cafe’s baristas were eventually able to secure a severance agreement, but it contains an anti-disparagement clause that prohibits the union from speaking about the situation. Truthout was able to speak with two former employees that left the company prior to the layoffs and are not speaking on behalf of the union. Stephanie Bland, who worked as a barista at the cafe, said workers there experienced “a lot of intimidation” and that the company installed cameras that were perceived by many as a way to surveil employees. She also said workers were required to make up the difference with their own money if the cash register till didn’t line up with the day’s receipts — a practice that is illegal. Despite the statement from the company’s attorney, Bland said she thought the layoffs and store closings were a “direct result of the bargaining process.” Former barista Kat Finch told Truthout that the company seemingly didn’t know what unionization entailed when they agreed to accept it and pointed out that the layoffs occurred shortly after the union began to move against “right to work” language in the contract. “I like being a barista,” said Finch. “There’s not a lot of coffee shops here. We had our regular customers and got to know them really well. We wouldn’t have started a union if we wanted the cafe to fail.”

While employers don’t typically shut down entire stores in response to organizing efforts, the worker layoffs themselves are a common union-busting tactic. There are currently no laws to penalize employers who engage in this kind of action. The PRO Act would allow employees to sue their bosses if their ability to organize is violated.

The PRO Act has broad support from Democrats with 100 House cosponsors and 40 Senate cosponsors, but its passage remains an uphill battle: No Republican is expected to support it and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be in no rush for a vote. Nonetheless, its supporters have now effectively queued up a massive labor law overhaul that could become a reality if the GOP loses the Senate next election.