This Is the Best Chance in Generations to Pass Pro-Worker Legislation

A new coalition of most powerful progressive organizations has united to push the Senate to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act.
July 22, 2021, 11:00am
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On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Theoretically, Amazon warehouse workers, Walmart cashiers, and McDonald's cooks in the United States have the right to join labor unions and bargain with their employers for better pay and benefits. But decades of anti-worker policy, employer-led campaigns, and an entire industry devoted to union-busting, has brought union membership in the United States down to 12.1 percent.  

A new coalition of more than 40 progressive organizations, unveiled Thursday, has united to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, the most pro-labor legislation in U.S. history, in order to change that. 

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The grassroots group, the Worker Power Coalition, is made up of 40 of the most powerful progressive organizations in the United States, across a broad spectrum of issues, including racial justice, electoral politics, environmental activism. Among them, the Working Families Party, MoveOn, Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, the Sierra Club, and the Democratic Socialists of America. 

The PRO Act passed the House in April and sits before a dubious Senate. The coalition's aim is to show the Senate that support for the PRO Act isn't limited to the labor movement, but a top priority for progressive organizations and their members across the United States. 

The coalition's formation coincides with a national debate about "essential workers" and their working conditions in the United States, as the economy emerges from the pandemic.

The PRO Act would make it significantly easier for workers in the United States to join unions and raise their wages by establishing penalties of up to $50,000 for employers who violate workers' union rights (there are no financial penalties as of now), banning employer-led anti-union meetings, override right-to-work laws, crackdown on employers ability to misclassify gig workers as independent contractors in effect allowing them to unionize, among other things. For employers that are hostile to unions, like Amazon, Uber, and Lyft, this legislation could be transformative. 

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In simpler terms, the PRO Actwould help fix a glaring disconnect in the United States between the widespread desire Americans have to join unions—and the dwindling number of workers who get to be in them. According to a 2019 poll, nearly half of all non-union workers in the United States say they would vote to unionize if given the opportunity. But only 12.1 percent of U.S. workers were represented by them in 2020. Union jobs, on average, pay 16 percent higher wages than nonunion jobs, combat racial wealth gaps, and ensure more workers have access to healthcare. 

The Worker Power Coalition has committed to lobbying efforts in Washington DC, actions throughout the summer, and a six-figure digital ad buy. The announcement arrives Thursday as the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions meets for a hearing on the PRO Act and how to turn it into law. 

New polling by Hart Research Associates, a research firm that conducts public opinion surveys, also released Thursday shows that Americans in nine states crucial to passing the PRO Act overwhelmingly support it. These states include Arizona, Ohio, Pensilvania, and West Virginia. Across all states polled, 79 percent of respondents said they support increasing penalties for companies that retaliate against workers for organizing to improve their working conditions. 

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Progressive organizations that have joined the coalition and are contributing resources see the expansion of union rights as fundamentally aligned with their projects. Progressive electoral campaigns, for example, benefit greatly from the endorsement of unions. 

"We want to build a multi-racial working class democracy but that's really really hard," said Nelini Stamp, director of strategy and partnerships for the Working Families Party. "We can’t reach it without people who have rights in their workplace." 

MoveOn, a progressive public policy advocacy organization and political action committee with 10 million members in the United States, has organized a number of actions for PRO Act in recent months, including a rally and phone bank.  

"We need unions because they spark an understanding within the larger zeitgeist of America that when we come together, we are powerful and can pool influence to decide who gets elected and influence their decisions," Rahna Epting, the executive Director of MoveOn, told Motherboard. 

​Environmental organizations who have joined the coalition, such the the Sunrise Movement and the Sierra Club, also see union rights as fundamental to combating climate change in a way that benefits working-class people. 

"The Sunrise Movement was founded on the mission of stopping climate change and creating millions of good union jobs," Ellen Sciales, the communications director of the Sunrise Movement, told Motherboard. "From the start, we’ve been committed to empowering unions. Green jobs must be good jobs and the PRO Act is necessary to ensure green profits go to workers and not corporate executives like Elon Musk."

The coalition is also backed by some of the country's largest labor unions and workers' advocacy groups, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the United Auto Workers (UAW), the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), and Rideshare Drivers United. 

The PRO Act has close to zero chance of passing a vote in the Senate with no support from Republicans. Its passage is dependent on modification of the filibuster or an alternative mechanism that might require certain compromises. 

This month, President Biden has indicated that the PRO Act is a top priority for his administration—including it in his executive order on promoting competition in the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, Democrats say that they'll include it in their $3.5 trillion partisan package, which they plan to pass using a practice called reconciliation.