During last night’s address to a joint session of Congress, President Biden forcefully called on the assembled legislators to pass the Protect the Right to Organize Act, a bill that has already passed the House in March but has languished in the senate. But what is the PRO Act? And, in a speech dedicated to the wellbeing of families, why does it matter? Here’s what to know.
The AFL-CIO calls the PRO Act “the most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression.” The head of the SEIU said it’s a “critical step towards giving workers more power in our economy.” And the law’s opponents have been no less dramatic in their assessments.
The staunchly anti-labor U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the PRO Act “is a threat to America’s workers, employers, and our economy…a grab-bag of harmful policies that would deprive millions of workers of their privacy and fundamentally alter our nation’s system of labor relations.”
On that last point, everyone can agree: the PRO Act is a big deal, and, if it were to become law, it would be a massive boon for American families in their earning power, their ability to provide for their families, and their overall stability and wellbeing. Here’s what we know about how it could transform the world of American work—and what it all means for American families.
Here’s What the PRO Act Would Actually Do
According to its summary, the PRO Act “expands various labor protections related to employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain in the workplace.” Practically, that means broadening the scope of individuals covered by existing fair labor standards and allowing unions to encourage their members to support secondary strikes, those by employees represented by other unions, without fear of reprisal from employers.
The PRO Act would also end so-called right-to-work laws, which prevent unions from requiring the employees they are representing to pay dues for the cost of such representation. Legally prohibited from only representing part of the bargaining unit, the laws create a free-rider problem that strains union resources. Right-to-work laws are on the books in 27 states and Guam. They weaken unions financially and at the bargaining table.
It expands the legal definition of unfair labor practices to protect workers who participate in strikes from retaliation by their employees. It also prohibits employers from holding captive audience meetings during which management works hard to convince employees, who are required to be there, to oppose efforts to unionize. Captive audience meetings are one of Amazon’s favorite union-busting tactics, and they were used repeatedly in its successful (and legally questionable) effort to quash a union at its facility in Bessemer, Alabama.
Employers also would not be allowed to retaliate against employees who blow the whistle on unfair labor practices or collaborate with enforcement agencies investigating such practices. The PRO Act also contains provisions modernizing the procedures for union representation elections and establishing penalties against entities that don’t comply with National Labor Relations Board orders.
What the PRO Act Would Mean
All of those specific alterations to the law add up to what unions are excited about and many on the management side fear: a shift in power away from capital and toward labor.
Union membership has been declining for decades, thanks to deindustrialization, outsourcing, and the passage of anti-union laws (especially right-to-work) lobbied for by the business community and passed by legislators who are much more likely to be sympathetic to management than labor.
By nullifying state right-to-work laws, and banning many of the tactics employers use to defeat union drives, the PRO Act would make it easier for employees to form unions and collectively bargain.
Why Are Unions Good for Families?
Union workers earn higher wages, on average, than workers in comparable non-union jobs. They are also more likely to have employer-provided pensions and health insurance. Unions also provide workers with a forum to express concerns about workplace safety and fairness, creating job security for families who have mouths to feed but deserve good working conditions.
Higher wages lead to indirect benefits to society. Those who earn more rely less on public assistance and can pay more in taxes, creating a virtuous cycle.
And a 2016 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that unions “raised earnings, provided retirement benefits, included employer-paid health insurance, promoted occupational safety and health, and protected workers from discrimination and unfair treatment,” all of which are “important determinants” of public health. These are all majorly important for healthy families.
Will the PRO Act pass?
Despite the benefits—including fewer people on public assistance, something Republicans should be all for—the PRO Act faces a difficult road to passage. The House has already voted on it during this Congress, but in the Senate, it only has the support of 47 senators, all Democrats. The three holdouts on the Democratic side—Senators Mark Kelly and Krysten Sinema of Arizona and Mark Warner of Virginia—are about to be the subjects of massive ad buys by labor activists seeking to secure their support for the bill.
But even if all 50 Democratic senators and Kamala Harris, who holds the tiebreaking vote as Vice President, support the bill, its passage is not assured. As the rules currently stand, ten Republicans would have to break ranks and support the bill to defeat a filibuster. That is a very remote possibility.
That leaves Democrats with a couple of options. They could try to pass parts of the PRO Act through budget reconciliation, but since all legislation passed this way has to be germane to the budget it’s likely that much of the PRO Act would have to be abandoned. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer refused to override this rule for the American Rescue Plan, and there’s no indication he’d do so for the PRO Act.
The other option is to eliminate the filibuster and pass the legislation with a simple majority, but that would require the support of all 50 Senate Democrats (and Harris), which it does not currently have despite the fact that the filibuster is also standing in the way of a bunch of other Democratic priorities, from voting rights legislation to DC statehood to criminal justice reform.
Given the limited amount of time Democrats are likely to control both houses of Congress and the White House, there is some hope that the holdouts in the party recognize and seize the brief opportunity they have to pass a law for one of their party’s most consistent bases of support. Otherwise, the PRO Act—and all of its potential benefits—will go down and the erosion of American organized labor will continue.