“I want you to know I’m a union guy.” That’s what President Joe Biden said to CEOs and labor leaders in a meeting last November. He also voiced his commitment that labor would have more power under his administration and that workers should remain safe amid the ongoing pandemic. If the former vice president is serious about these commitments, he will not only support the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, but make its passage a major priority of his first month in office.
At the onset of the 1930s, America was in a deep depression with staggering levels of unemployment, poverty, debt, and homelessness. President Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and implemented the widest expansion of the American public sector to date, including legislation such as the Wagner Act which granted private sector workers the rights to unionize and collectively bargain. The Wagner Act, (more commonly known as NLRA,) was foundational to our modern labor movement. It is also the last time the federal government has acted to protect collective bargaining rights. In the 85 years since its passage, the U.S. has failed to expand or modify the Wagner Act despite widespread recognition of its faults, enormous changes in the economy, and countless calls to adapt and expand labor rights. Despite its transformative impact for labor, the NLRA was also racist in nature. It excluded agricultural, domestic, and undocumented workers, leaving core labor rights and protections inaccessible to disproportionately Black and brown sectors of the workforce. It failed to anticipate and protect against the strategies businesses have developed to thwart workers leveraging their rights. Employees who face practices that violate the NLRA cannot file civil penalties, but rather rely on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce the law and oversee representation elections. This process is deeply flawed. It is often characterized by long delays that waste the time, resources, and morale of the labor movement. Furthermore, as the last four years have demonstrated, the NLRB’s commitment to its role instilling fair labor relations falls short when incompetent, pro-business board members are appointed. The legislators who wrote the NLRA were clear in its intent to solidify the right to strike, however courts have fundamentally undermined this protection by ruling to permit employers to “permanently replace” workers who strike.
Our current political moment, in which a Democratic president has taken office amid a threatening recession, shares much with the New Deal era, and requires a recommitment to protecting workers with updated awareness of the new challenges that exist. Already through the House, the PRO Act would ensure that workers share in the economic growth produced as we work collectively to pull ourselves out of this recession. It would strengthen collective bargaining protections and allow the recognition of joint employers, so that workers like fashion models employed by multiple entities would gain access to NLRA rights and protection. It would limit the independent contractor designation to people truly providing a service in an independently established trade. This would mean that Uber and other companies who depend on the labor of workers like delivery drivers could no longer escape providing the basic rights and protections guaranteed to employees in the United States. It would introduce real accountability and consequences for employers who violate the NLRA. It would streamline the NLRB’s timeline for overseeing elections and processing unfair labor practice charges. Crucially, it would prohibit employers from hiring scabs.
Income inequality is extreme and on the rise in the United States, threatening our ability to recover from this recession, to weather the next one, and to tackle the urgent task of addressing climate change. There is no institution more equipped to fight inequality and boost wages than labor unions. Their impact on wages is positive for both unionized and nonunionized workers. The evidence of unions improving workplace safety, narrowing gender and race-based wage gaps, and generally ensuring workers have a voice in this economy is indisputable. Armed with control over all three branches of government, Democrats should begin the new year with a firm commitment to the working people of America, by passing the PRO Act.