Americans like unions, but very few belong to one, a discrepancy that places the U.S. labor movement in a precarious state. In 2017, only 10.7 percent of all Americans belonged to a union, but that same year, a PBS NewsHour poll found that nearly half of all Americans said they’d join a union if they could. Union membership hasn’t budged much since then, even as overall support for unions reached its highest level in a decade — 65 percent of Americans polled by Gallup in 2020 said they approved of unions, up from a low of 48 percent in 2010.
A gap this wide indicates a serious problem. If Americans like unions and want to join them but aren’t, it’s likely because they can’t. Fortunately, a possible fix awaits: The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would mark the biggest expansion of collective-bargaining rights in decades. President Biden has said he supports the bill, and he may soon be in a position to make good on that support. The bill passed the House with bipartisan support late on Tuesday evening, and is headed now to the Senate.
Below, a brief outline of the PRO Act. What is it, exactly, and why should it matter to the 90 percent of Americans who don’t belong to a union? The answers, supporters say, are key to President Biden’s “build back better” agenda — and to a more equitable country.
What does the PRO Act do?
The act “modernizes and updates a lot of the loopholes and the brokenness of U.S. labor law,” explained Ryan Kekeris, an organizer for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, or IUPAT. Since Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, business groups and conservative lobbyists have worked with great success to hollow out and weaken its provisions. “Right-to-work” laws in various states require unions to represent all workers on a given jobsite, whether or not those workers choose to pay dues. That harms unions financially, drives down union membership, and, according to a handful of studies, depresses wages for all.
If it becomes law, the PRO Act would also prevent employers from misclassifying workers either as independent contractors or as supervisors, which excludes them from many protections of the National Labor Relations Act. That provision worries some freelancers, who believe they’ll be forced to unionize, or that companies will stop working with them. Those doomsday scenarios aren’t likely to occur, as labor lawyer Brandon Magner recently pointed out in his newsletter, Labor Law Lite. The PRO Act concerns itself with a narrow question: “whether certain workers possess rights” under the National Labor Relations Act, including “the right to strike, collectively bargain, and engage in various other ‘concerted activities’ for ‘mutual aid or protection.’” That doesn’t mean a freelancer writer will automatically lose work. Nor would they suddenly find themselves forced into a union overnight; Magner writes that “a demonstrated majority of their freelancing-colleagues at a website” would have to push for it.
Employers would also have a harder time pressuring workers against forming a union, because, as matters stand now, employers “can make you spend more or less all day long sitting in captive audience meetings with an anti-union consultant, or a manager or supervisor, where they never stop telling you how this is a bad decision that could adversely affect the company,” Kekeris said. The PRO Act bans such meetings. It would also prohibit employers from permanently replacing striking workers with non-union labor, thus removing another key source of pressure on unionized labor. Employers that violate existing legal provisions by coercing or retaliating against workers who organize would also face stiffer penalties for doing so.
Can it pass?
The PRO Act passed the House with bipartisan support. But it may face a harder road in the Senate, where a virtually certain Republican filibuster could block its passage. Though moderate senators, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have both said they don’t want to abolish the filibuster, some voices within labor are urging them to reconsider.
Kekeris says his union, IUPAT, believes it’s time for the filibuster to go. “The Democratic Party controls the chambers. They control the presidency. If they cannot get the PRO Act passed with a simple majority then it is up to them to figure out how to do it,” he said. “We consider the end of the filibuster to be vital.” IUPAT isn’t alone, either. In a press release, the Communication Workers of America urged senators “to stop hiding behind outdated rules and procedures like the filibuster.” The executive council of the AFL-CIO also released a statement, saying that if the PRO Act proves impossible to pass with the current Senate rules in place, it will call for “swift and necessary changes.”
Should any of this matter to non-union workers?
If the business of getting the PRO Act passed knocks a hole in the filibuster, it’ll remove a substantial obstacle to the democratization of the Senate. That possibility reveals another, under-considered consequence of the PRO Act: It’s good for democracy. Democracy is an expansive idea, encompassing more than electoral politics or arcane Senate procedure. Unions don’t exist to elect Democrats. They exist so that workers can bargain better conditions for themselves — an act of workplace democracy that reinforces the right to free association and the right to free speech.
“I would say that America’s workplaces, absent a union contract, are probably the least democratic spaces we have in our society,” said Lane Windham, a Georgetown University professor and the author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide.
The bill will also have other, far-reaching ramifications. Unions, after all, are simply made up of workers; bills that are good for the former tend to be good for the latter. Workers who face racial and gender discrimination on the job could benefit the most from the PRO Act’s provisions. In unions, said Celine McNicholas of the Economic Policy Institute, “workers of color are not experiencing the same sort of wage suppression that they are in other, non-unionized settings.” Union membership thus correlates to lower racial wealth gaps. “The PRO Act promotes greater racial economic justice because unions allow for collective bargaining, essentially shrinks Black-white wage gaps, and brings greater fairness in terms of hiring opportunities,” she added.
As long as employers have the broad right to wear workers down for trying to organize, the First Amendment might as well stop at the office or factory doors. Employers can even block workers from speaking during anti-union, captive audience meetings. “People think that they have a right to their job and they actually don’t,” Windham said. “Employers, with a few exceptions like discrimination issues, can generally fire people at will and can limit your free speech at any time.”
To date, President Biden hasn’t endorsed calls to end the filibuster. But if he wants to build America back better, as he’s promised, advocates say the PRO Act is nonnegotiable. “In order to build an economy that is more just, that promotes greater equality, working people need a voice. They need access to unions,” said McNicholas.