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The Time is NOW For The PRO Act To Protect Workers

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Jim Staus had one goal: To  make the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) a better place to work. Jim worked hard, he got stellar reviews and he was proud of his job as a supply technician. But his pay was so low that one winter, he and his wife had to melt snow to flush their toilets after their water was shut off. When Jim started talking to his coworkers about forming a union with SEIU, UPMC fired him illegally.  Losing his job and his paycheck upended his life. And despite winning at the National Labor Relations Board twice, Jim is still waiting for justice. Years later, his case is still under appeal, with UPMC’s corporate lawyers spending whatever it takes to bury him in paper.

Jim is not alone. Our labor laws do an abysmal job of protecting working men and women across the nation when they come together to stand up for themselves and their families. In more than 40 percent of union elections, employers are charged with breaking the law.  And union-busters face few repercussions. Now, we have a chance to change that when the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, H.R. 2474, comes to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 6.

As members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have made clear, if Congress is serious about supporting working families, labor law reform should be at the top of the agenda.  This matters a whole lot to unions, but it also matters to progressive organizations. That’s because unions build power for the rest of us.

Unions give us a say in our workplaces and in our democracy. From teachers demanding fair wages and better conditions for their students to McDonalds’ workers fighting for an end to sexual harassment to tech workers protesting their companies’ role in helping the Trump administration carry out its cruel family separation policy, unions are at the heart of the progressive movement.

Union membership is tied to higher wages, safer workplaces, better healthcare, lower pay gaps for women and people of color and more. Children who grow up in areas with high rates of union membership have better education and life outcomes, even if their families weren’t in a union.  That’s because unions fight for things that benefit everyone, like better schools and better healthcare.

Unions have been under an all-out attack from union-busting employers, aided and abetted by legislatures and the courts for decades. Chipping away at collective bargaining rights has real consequences.  As the number of people in unions has declined from nearly one in three workers in 1979 to just 10.5% of workers in 2019, more people struggle to make ends meet, while wealth is concentrated among a small group of millionaires and billionaires.  Real wages have fallen even as people work more than ever before.  Union members have higher wages, along with job benefits that allow them and their loved ones to go to the doctor when they are sick, to save for retirement and have paid leave.  Those benefits have historically grown a strong middle class that is now under attack as unions are gutted. All the while, reactionary, right-wing billionaires amass more wealth and power over our lives.

As leaders of some of the largest progressive organizations in the country, we demand that Congress take action to protect workers’ rights and fix our nation’s broken labor laws.

There are bills before Congress right now that would give working people the protection they deserve. The PRO Act, H.R. 2474, would make sure that when working people stand up for themselves, the law is on their side.

The PRO Act makes sure that employers who break the law actually pay the price.  Just like Jim’s story, there are countless examples of employers who brazenly ignore labor protections because they know they can get away with it.  The PRO Act provides meaningful penalties when employers engage in union-busting. It provides a path to reinstatement for fired employees while their cases are waiting to be heard, so they are not out of work for years. And it allows workers to pursue their claims in court, rather than only before the National Labor Relations Board.

H.R. 3463, the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act and H.R. 1154, the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, protect the rights of public sector workers like teachers and firefighters to join unions and bargain collectively. In 25 states, there are no laws explicitly protecting the rights of all public employees sector workers to organize. North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia bar teachers, police, and firefighters from collective bargaining. Thirteen states leave the question of whether teachers can collectively bargain up to local school boards. In some of these states, a patchwork of laws permit only select groups of workers, such as police officers, have the right to bargain collectively or restrict the subjects of bargaining.

Passing this legislation will restore working people’s voice on the job and fulfill the promise of our democracy to benefit all of us, regardless of income, race or gender.  And it’s what the people want. More than half of non-union workers would vote to join a union if they could.

Despite shrinking protections, more and more workers are bravely standing up for their rights by joining strikes and work stoppages across the country. In 2018 alone, more than 485,000 took to the streets, the largest number of workers participating in labor actions since the mid-1980s. Thousands of United Auto Workers (UAW) members held the longest General Motors strike in decades to fight for healthcare, fair wages and a fair deal for contract workers even after General Motors threw strikers off their healthcare plans. Despite intense anti-union efforts, workers at conglomerates such as Amazon and Walmart have continued organizing.  The progressive movement stands shoulder to shoulder with these brave men and women.

In 2018, Democrats promised working people that they would take action to strengthen our democracy and boost our paychecks. Passing labor law reform is the surest way to deliver on that promise.  Working people have never stopped fighting for their rights. Now it’s time for Congress to join their fight.

This article was originally published at Our Future on February 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jennifer Epps-Addison is Co-Executive Director and Network President of the Center for Popular Democracy

About the Author: Rahna Epting is the Executive Director of MoveOn

About the Author: George Goehl is the Executive Director of People’s Action

About the Author: Leah Greenberg is the Co-Executive Director of Indivisible

About the Author: Yvette Simpson is the Chief Executive Officer of Democracy for America

About the Author: Dorian Warren is the Vice President of Community Change Action

About the Author: Liz Watson is the Executive Director of the Progressive Caucus Action Fund (PCAF)


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House Democrats pass pro-worker, pro-organizing labor bill, this week in the war on workers

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The House voted Thursday to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a bill to protect workers trying to unionize, increase penalties on employers who break labor laws to prevent workers from unionizing, and weaken some state-level anti-union laws.

“Good labor laws do more than just right the wrongs waged against unions and their members. Good labor laws help ensure people are safe at work and have a shot at decent wages, health care, and a secure retirement,” wrote Sara Nelson and Randi Weingarten, presidents of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the American Federation of Teachers. “Good labor laws lift up every working person, even those not in a union, because when workers in unionized companies win better wages and working conditions than their peers in non-union companies, those peers may seek to unionize, too—and pressure employers to better their lot. Good labor laws set a standard for how working people should be treated in an economy where there are countless laws already on the books to protect the rich and powerful.” And, they say, the PRO Act is a good start at better labor law—even though it wouldn’t most directly affect their unions’ members.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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House Passes Bill to Dramatically Strengthen the Power of Unions

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House Democrats just passed an important blueprint for strengthening unions and building worker power. If signed into law, the labor law reforms within the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would amount to the biggest change to the rules governing employers and workers in generations. Among other major features, it would bolster workers’ ability to unionize, expand organizing rights to more workers and strengthen the right to strike.

Although flawed­, the legislation would go a long way toward reversing decades of GOP-backed efforts to grind unions into dust.

“This is about stemming the assault that the Republicans are making on the rights of working men and women in our country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who sponsored the PRO Act along with 218 other House members, including three Republicans, called the legislation the “most significant update in U.S. labor laws in 80 years” and “a major step towards creating an economy where everyone can succeed.”

But the PRO Act, which the House approved Thursday evening with a 224-194 vote (mostly along party lines), has essentially no chance of becoming law anytime soon.  Although 40 Democratic senators do support the Senate version of the bill, it is unlikely to be passed by the Republican-controlled Senate and will not be taken up for consideration during the current legislative session by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

So why did Speaker Pelosi bother bringing the bill to a floor vote this week? It’s an election year. The PRO Act strengthens Democrats’ claim to be the only party really fighting for the middle and working classes. And it hands organized labor a victory to point to, giving unions a rallying cry that could serve to solidify their members’ active support for whomever becomes the Democratic nominee later this year.

“Stand with us today and we’ll stand with you tomorrow,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at the press conference alongside Democrats.

None of this is to argue the PRO Act’s passage is solely a ploy by Democrats to shore up labor’s support as the campaign season lifts off. It signals the Democratic Party’s leftward movement since the 2016 election cycle. We’ve seen a wave of labor actions among teachers, journalists and nonprofits; it is no coincidence that the party has embraced an ambitious labor law reform bill amid this new organizing momentum. Democrats are shifting left along with the party’s base.

While it’s true that voting for a bill you know will not become law anytime soon isn’t exactly an act of political courage, members of Congress deserve applause for passing a measure that would clearly add muscle to a flailing union movement.

What the PRO Act would change

For about the last 40 years, employers have whittled away at labor power and unions through a host of unionbusting tactics. Meanwhile, GOP-controlled state legislatures have passed so-called “right to work” laws that have kneecapped unions by allowing employees to opt out of paying dues even though unions that still must represent them.

To counter all of this, the PRO Act, would among other things:

  • Penalize employers who fire or retaliate against workers trying to form a union.
  • Streamline the union certification process.
  • Prohibit employers from forcing employees to attend anti-union meetings, often deployed during organizing drives.
  • Eliminate right-to-work laws, which exist in 27 states.
  • Ban the permanent replacement of striking workers
  • Legalize secondary boycotts and picketing.
  • Make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors (similar to California’s AB5 bill, which Uber and Lyft are fighting).

It all adds up to a potential power rebalance that could help to counter rampant inequality and generally stagnant wages across vast swaths of the U.S. economy. Various groups aligned with business—from The National Retail Federation to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—are, of course, apoplectic over the proposed legislation.

Major omission

The PRO Act does indeed include a “grab bag” of measures for which unions have long been pushed. But there’s one big thing missing in the bill when it’s placed in the context of the last few decades of labor law reform campaigns: a provision allowing any group of employees to organize through a majority sign-up process (“card check”), rather than through a voting process monitored by the National Labor Relations Board.

Remember the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the reform law pushed by the labor movement during the 2008 election cycle that died in the U.S. Senate after passing through the House? Its centerpiece was card check, without conditions, making organizing much easier by circumventing the commonly drawn-out election process. The PRO Act only requires card check if an employer is found to have violated labor law during a failed union election.

It matters because card check alone could be as powerful as all of the PRO Act’s provisions for boosting union density and labor power. Strangely, the PRO Act, the biggest piece of labor law reform legislation in years, contains a watered-down version of EFCA’s centerpiece. Whether or not this signifies a strategic retreat on the part of Democratic leaders, who surely remember the battle over EFCA, is unclear. But it is puzzling, given that the PRO Act is—at least until the White House and the Senate flip to Democrats—mainly an aspirational statement of values and solidarity. Why not include card check as well, so there’s no daylight between the party and unions as the election approaches?

Card check is still an avowed goal of some legislators, namely, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who both laid out their plans for empowering workers and labor unions last year. (Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Andrew Yang also support card check.) The Sanders and Warren plans make the PRO Act seem relatively small bore, more tactical than structural in its approach to rewriting the rules workers must live by.

That does not mean the PRO Act is just window dressing; it would mark significant change if enacted. The House vote is notable, albeit essentially symbolic. A real victory must wait until Democrats win a Senate majority and the White House—and still prioritize rebuilding the labor movement as much as they did yesterday.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on February 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at the magazine. He is the editor of The Age of Inequality: Corporate America’s War on Working People (2017, Verso), and was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

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