More workers engaged in collective action last year than in any other year in the past three decades. In 2018, 485,000 people participated in work stoppages — from teachers to hotel workers to workers in the telecommunications industry and more.
In 2019, working people’s appetite for collective action shows no signs of slowing down. And they’re getting results.
In April, workers at Stop & Shop ended the largest retail strike in nearly two decades, when their employer finally agreed to back off of proposed cuts to their paychecks and pensions. That same month, over 10,000 nurses in New York state threatened to strike for better nurse-to-patient ratios and won. Major teacher strikes and work actions have drawn attention from lawmakers and school boards across the country to the chronic underinvestment in our nation’s schools.
Public support for unionization is at a 15-year high and more than half of non-union workers would vote to join a union if they could. But as the courts, regulators, lawmakers, and employers continue an all-out assault on union organizing, the share of the U.S. workforce that is unionized remains low, at less than 11 percent.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, when workers try to organize unions, 75 percent of employers hire union-busting consultants, 47 percent threaten to cut employee pay or benefits, 57 percent threaten to shut down, and 90 percent hold mandatory “captive audience” meetings to propagate anti-union messages.
Recently introduced legislation aims to protect workers against such intimidation tactics and strengthen their bargaining power. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would force employers to the bargaining table if the union has the support of a majority of employees and the employer interferes with the union election. If the National Labor Relations Board believes a worker has been illegally terminated for engaging in union activity, the PRO Act would require the company to reinstate the worker while the case is pending.
Under current law, bargaining for a first contract can drag on for years. To address this, the Act establishes a process for mediation and if necessary, binding arbitration, to reach a first contract.
The PRO Act would also prohibit employers from permanently replacing employees who strike, give stronger protections to contract workers, and provide compensatory damages for employees while penalizing employers that illegally fire or retaliate against workers. Among other protections, the Act would also ban captive audience meetings.
House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the legislation, which now has 141 co-sponsors, including Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI).
Advocates of the bill can point to hard data showing that when working people can organize and bargain for a fair paycheck, they do better, their families do better, and their communities do better. From the late 1940s through the late 1970s, when about a third of the workforce was unionized, productivity rose steadily, and working people experienced significant wage growth.
But for workers in unions, the union advantage remains as strong as ever. The typical private sector union worker earns $989 a week compared to $848 for his or her non-union counterparts. Women in unions typically earn 25 percent more than those who are not union members. Black union workers, on average, earn 21 percent more than non-union black workers. Latinx union workers earn 37 percent more than their non-union counterparts.
Union members also typically have far greater access to workplace benefits than non-union workers. Ninety-four percent of union members have access to job-related medical benefits compared to 66 percent of other workers. Ninety-two percent have job-related retirement plans. Eighty-nine percent have paid vacations and 83 percent have paid sick days.
The PRO Act would provide long overdue strengthened protections for people organizing to form a union and for people who are already members of a union. Increasing unionization rates would build bargaining power for workers, allowing more people to negotiate for the wages, benefits, and workplaces they deserve.
Alan Barber is the Policy Director and Liz Watson is the Executive Director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, a nonprofit that works to bring the power of grassroots organizing and progressive thinking to bear in Congress. This commentary is drawn from the report “The Moment for Labor Law Reform.”