Will Congress Take This Opportunity to Fight for Workers? The Reintroduction of the PRO Act
“The union is not some third-party entity that makes decisions for people, the union is the workers.”
This is what the vice president of a local union in Orlando, Florida told me the first time I met him as he recruited me to help the food service workers at my private college in a wealthy suburb of Orlando.
Prior to meeting him, I knew nothing about unions and was in the dark about the way the college’s food supplier treated its workers. For about a year now, I have been talking to employees and working with the union to learn about their grievances and support their organizing effort.
During this time, I learned that only about 10 percent of workers in the United States were part of a union as of 2022, which is an all-time low for union density in the country. But why are there so few unions in the U.S. when inequality has only been on the rise and the standard of living on the decline?
Throughout the 20th century, our country became less and less worker-friendly. The Reagan era is particularly infamous for its pro-corporate, tax-cutting, anti-union policies that set the standard of economic policymaking in the U.S. that is still very much alive in government today. Many even give Reagan credit for dealing a crippling blow to unions in America, as their cultural and socio-political relevance in the 21th century is less than it has been in generations.
Still, hope is not lost. Last year we saw the creation of the first Amazon union, as well as the widespread unionization efforts of Starbucks workers all over the country, many of which withstood unwavering union-busting from the multinational corporation. This just goes to show that more workers are fighting back when their employers take advantage of them.
Members of Congress increasingly are taking a stand and showing support for workers through legislation. In 2021, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act was introduced and passed in the House but couldn’t garner enough support in the Senate to progress. Earlier this month, however, the act was reintroduced in Congress by a bipartisan group of members, including Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
The PRO Act is a comprehensive piece of legislation that seeks to implement several new protections for workers attempting to unionize. First, it gives the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) more room to advocate for workers . This includes giving the NRLB and workers the power to set union election procedures rather than their employers. It would also require the NLRB to immediately work to reinstate workers that are wrongfully terminated as a result of participating in union activity. Employers in general would face accountability for violating worker’s rights under the PRO Act.
Furthermore, the Act reverses or allows workers to enter into agreements with employers to override existing so-called “right to work” laws that have made it difficult for them to unionize over the last 50 years. These also include laws preventing workers from participating in secondary strikes. The PRO Act also would prevent employers from classifying their employees as contractors to avoid some of the companies’ legal responsibilities as employers.
Like the workers on my campus, many of whom are Latin American immigrants, employees often are forced to attend “captive audience” meetings where the company spreads anti-union messaging. The food service workers at my college who do not speak English as a first language are often manipulated in meetings by Spanish-speaking managers denigrating the union and threatening them to stay away.
Bills like the PRO Act are desperately needed by workers all over the country but especially in right-to-work states like Florida that prioritize the interests of corporations over the well-being of working Americans. The weak labor laws in the U.S. allow companies like the one at my school to get away with unacceptable working conditions. Our contracted company is a French corporation and while their workers in France are unionized and treated fairly, they feel no need to uphold this standard in the U.S. because of the lack of consequences they would face here as opposed to a labor-friendly place like France. If the PRO Act passes, it will change the entire landscape for American labor which is why companies are scrambling to make sure the bill doesn’t go anywhere.
Congress must put workers first and pass the PRO Act to usher in a new chapter for this country where barriers to economic mobility are removed, workers are protected, and employers are held accountable for their unfair practices.