For decades, working families could depend on labor unions to represent their collective interests — ensuring a living wage, better benefits and a voice in their workplace. Now, after 50 years of rollbacks on union and labor rights, workers have been silenced at their jobs. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is an opportunity for Congress to give working families their voice back.
The PRO Act is about guaranteeing democracy and civility in the workplace. It protects workers who are trying to organize a union — a right they have by law — and penalizes employers for interfering in their right to form a union. It draws a much-needed line in the sand to strengthen workers’ rights to conduct organizing campaigns, hold fair elections and get to the bargaining table quickly. Without these protections, the playing field will remain heavily stacked against workers.
Ironically, workers trying to form a union are fighting for what the employer should be doing on its own — making sure workers and worksites are safe, ensuring its workers are properly trained to do the best job they can, paying workers fairly and treating its workforce with decency, civility and respect. The PRO Act gives workers the necessary protections to pursue these goals.
Under the PRO Act, employers would not be allowed to force workers to attend anti-union meetings, whose sole purpose is to bully workers into voting against the union. It’s a widely used intimidation tactic.
Employers also would not be allowed to misclassify employees as supervisors or independent contractors to prevent them from being union-eligible. This has been an oft-used, despicable attempt to keep people out of a union, especially in the construction industry. Across the country, employers misclassify workers to skirt their responsibilities for pay, benefits and other work conditions.
For example, during a construction project in Nashville, Tenn., 120 misclassified drywall finishers were never compensated for overtime work and two weeks of work at the end of the project. The Painters Union and other labor groups are fighting back to win these workers their fair pay. The PRO Act would ensure that employers could no longer dodge wage and hour standards by misclassifying workers.
Employers also could not hire permanent replacements for striking workers and could not delay negotiations indefinitely. Too often, employers will refuse to sit down with elected unions, refuse to resolve workers’ valid complaints and discourage union members’ hopes for better conditions.
The truth is, companies engage in these anti-workplace activities because they reap the benefits and face no consequences.
The economy is working well for the wealthy and corporations but stagnating for everyone else. From 1980 to 2014, wages for the bottom half of workers grew by just 1 percent, while wages for the top 1 percent grew by 205 percent. This past year, inequality was at its highest rate in over 50 years, and the federal minimum wage has not risen above $7.25 an hour in a decade. The inequity is staggering.
Instead of wasting time and money on union-busting activities, employers should prioritize partnering with their workers collaboratively on improving their business and working conditions. These labor-management relations have been a staple of collective bargaining since its inception and will only be strengthened through the PRO Act.
Almost half of all non-unionized workers say they would join a union if they were given the opportunity but less than 11 percent of American workers belong to a union. This bill helps level the playing field and gives workers the opportunity to exercise their legal right to unionize. It’s time we give the working class their voice back.
Pocan represents Wisconsin’s 2nd District and is a member of the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee. He has been an International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) member for over two decades. Rigmaiden is general president of IUPAT.