Policymakers Must Invest in PRO Act to Build Worker Power, Address Economic Inequality

By Christian Collins

The rebound from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided much-needed fuel to the labor movement. A surge in union organizing and strike activity have made headlines while public popularity of unions, in general, has reached a high not seen in nearly 60 years. A poll conducted last fall put support for labor unions at 68 percent –the highest measured since 1965. With soaring income inequality and a persistent and pernicious racial wealth gap, workers are looking to unions to advance racial and gender equity and improve their economic security.

Unfortunately, due to outdated and anti-union labor laws, companies continue to stymie organizing efforts. Despite the spike in union activity and popularity, union membership has shrunk steadily over the last several decades. Congress could update our labor laws but, to date, has failed to do so. It’s time lawmakers pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act to federally protect the right of workers to organize and advocate for improved workplace environments.

Union Membership Rate Changes by Demographic Classes

Congress’s inaction is especially harmful considering the role that unionized labor plays in addressing gender and racial economic inequity. Collective bargaining is one of the most important tools for workers to advocate for better working conditions and address racial and gender economic justice. Unions play a direct role in reducing racial and gender wage disparities by establishing baseline wages and structures for pay increases, and increases in white union membership are correlated with increased support for public policies that benefit Black workers and their communities. Organized labor has been experiencing a trend of increased diversity in membership, and investing in opportunities to expand worker power increases the agency of these workers to correct historical disparities.

Just over 65 percent of workers covered by union contracts are women and/or people of color. Black workers aged 18 to 64 experience the highest coverage from collective bargaining agreements, at 13.5 percent. Union members in general earn more than their non-union counterparts. Black and Latinx workers under collective bargaining agreements earn, on average, 13.7 percent and 20.1 percent more income, respectively, than non-union workers in those same categories. Similarly, working women earn 5.8 percent more income than non-union women.

Current federal rights for private-sector workers to organize are centered within the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Unfortunately, the NLRA has several exploitable gaps brought about by previous efforts to intentionally weaken the law. The most notable among them is the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 that allowed states to establish right-to-work laws and limit union power. Union-averse employers and law firms exploit these gaps to erect often insurmountable barriers for workers seeking to unionize and improve working conditions.

The PRO Act is meant to fortify workers’ collective bargaining rights by restoring the right to organize and engage in union activity. Its provisions include:

  • Establishing meaningful and enforceable penalties for employers that violate workers’ rights
  • Granting the NLRB direct enforcement power to prevent employers from interfering in unionization elections
  • Requiring disclosure of all anti-union activities by employers
  • Crafting a formalized mediation and arbitration process to streamline initial collective bargaining agreements once unions are formed

These remedies are fundamental to upgrading the effectiveness of current federal labor laws, as companies currently have a vast suite of methods they can use to counter unionization drives and punish workers for exercising their right to collectively bargain.

Passing the expanded labor protections provided by the PRO Act should be a high priority for Congress this session. The executive branch has already taken steps to outline how federal agencies can better support unionization efforts. But executive action is only a temporary stopgap. Legislative action is necessary to effectively protect all workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.

A pandemic recovery will not be feasible without action to protect and fortify labor rights

Labor unions are crucial in equitably distributing wealth to workers and increasing their economic security. They are proven to increase wages, provide better benefits for workers, and bring about safer working conditions. Unions also combat societal inequality through closing racial and gender wage gaps and forcing employers to adopt better workplace anti-discrimination policies. Prioritizing the PRO Act is essential for both national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and progressing as a society to face the economic challenges of the future.  We urge Congress to codify these protections into law.

1. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf
2. https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2019/union-membership-rate-10-point-5-percent-in-2018-down-from-20-point-1-percent-in-1983.htm