The House Must Stand Up For Labor
AFL-CIO President calls on Congress to support the PRO Act
The editorial below was written by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and appeared in the NY Daily News on February 6th.
Support for the labor movement is the highest in nearly half a century, yet only one in 10 workers are members of unions today. How can both be true?
So what explains the gap between desire for union representation and existing union representation? Simply put, unscrupulous employers and outdated labor laws have created an environment where it has never been harder to form a union.
Take the workers at the Kumho Tire plant in Macon, Ga., for example. Workers there suffered from dangerous chemical exposures and were fed up with inadequate safety training. So four in five of the plant’s employees requested union representation with the United Steelworkers.
While their petition made its way through the process, bosses deployed a strategy to rig the outcome. Plant workers were forced to attend company meetings where the brass had a single agenda item: disparaging unions. Despite those strong-arming and scare tactics, employees still voted for union representation, but have yet to start bargaining a contract because the company is challenging the results.
Kumho Tire employees were denied their right to freely decide whether or not to form a union. Strengthening that right — and creating a truly level playing field for future worker organizing campaigns — is why the House of Representatives should pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act this week. This bill is the most significant effort to rebuild the process for forming a union since the Great Depression, and it is long overdue.
In the 85 years since President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act, Congress has failed to update a single labor law in favor of America’s workers. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act gutted the NLRA and paved the way for states to pass right to work laws — laws that contain no rights and promote no decent work. Anti-union groups have used the judiciary — up to and including the Supreme Court — to weaken labor laws, making it harder for workers to form and join a union and easier for employers to deny better pay and benefits.
This can and must change. Led by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott and Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray, the PRO Act would let workers vote quickly to form a union without employer interference. Newly unionized workers would have a right to binding arbitration if an employer refused to negotiate a first contract in good faith. If workers exercised the right to strike, the PRO Act would protect their jobs by banning employers from hiring full-time replacements.
The PRO Act would also tighten the definitions of independent contractor and supervisor, two groups that do not have the right to organize under the NLRA. Employers have long unfairly and deliberately misclassified their employees in order to get around legal responsibilities such as providing a minimum wage and health benefits — a trick getting more attention as the number of Americans relying on contract and part-time work rapidly increases. The PRO Act would provide the hope of a union card to millions of misclassified workers who have been denied the right to organize and bargain.
Finally, the PRO Act would supersede the wage-killing right-to-work laws adopted in 27 states since Taft-Hartley. Propped up by special interest groups and signed into law throughout the South and more recently the Midwest by anti-worker politicians like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Michigan’s Rick Snyder and Kentucky’s Matt Bevin, these laws all but guarantee lower wages and pensions and insufficient health care coverage. Americans already have the right to work. Now, we are demanding work with dignity.
But make no mistake: Despite the unrelenting attacks, 2019 was a year of undeniable progress in the labor movement. Nearly 50,000 UAW members at General Motors fought on the picket line for 40 days over better pay and benefits. Thousands of public school teachers — proud AFT members — went on strike across the country to demand smaller class sizes, higher wages and better conditions for their students. Thousands more media workers, sick of layoffs and budget cuts, unionized through voluntary recognition. Now these workers are demanding changes in our labor law.
Unions are about reflecting the power of workers — and labor laws should reflect our highest aspirations. Strong unions mean higher pay, more tax revenue for local and state governments, and better, safer working conditions in every corner of the country. In short, unions are good for our economy and our society. With the PRO Act, lawmakers can finally make the life-changing promise of a