The PRO Act: Giving workers more bargaining power on the job

Our economy is out of balance. Corporations and CEOs hold too much power and wealth, and working people know it. Workers are mobilizing, organizing, protesting, and striking at a level not seen in decades, and they are winning pay raises and other real change by using their collective voices.

But, the fact is, it is still too difficult for working people to form a union at their workplace when they want to. The law gives employers too much power and puts too many roadblocks in the way of workers trying to organize with their co-workers. That’s why the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—introduced today by Senator Murray and Representative Scott—is such an important piece of legislation.

The PRO Act addresses several major problems with the current law and tries to give working people a fair shot when they try to join together with their coworkers to form a union and bargain for better wages, benefits, and conditions at their workplaces. Here’s how:

  1. Stronger and swifter remedies when employers interfere with workers’ rights. Under current law, there are no penalties on employers or compensatory damages for workers when employers illegally fire or retaliate against workers who are trying to form a union. As a result, employers routinely fire pro-union workers, because they know it will undermine the organizing campaign and they will face no real consequences. The PRO Act addresses this issue, instituting civil penalties for violations of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Specifically, the legislation establishes compensatory damages for workers and penalties against employers (including penalties on officers and directors) when employers break the law and illegally fire or retaliate against workers. Importantly, these back pay and damages remedies apply to workers regardless of their immigration status. The PRO Act also requires the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to go to court and get an injunction to immediately reinstate workers if the NLRB believes the employer has illegally retaliated against workers for union activity. With this reform, workers won’t be out of a job and a paycheck while their case works its way through the system. Finally, the PRO Act adds a right for workers to go to court to seek relief, bringing labor law in line with other workplace laws that already contain this right. And, the legislation prohibits employers from forcing workers to waive their right to class or collective litigation.
  2. More freedom to organize without employer interference. The PRO Act streamlines the NLRB election process so workers can petition to form a union and get a timely vote without their employer interfering and delaying the vote. The act makes clear it is workers’ decision to file for a union election and that employers have no standing in the NLRB’s election process. It prohibits companies from forcing workers to attend mandatory anti-union meetings as a condition of continued employment. If the employer breaks the law or interferes with a fair election, the PRO Act empowers the NLRB to require the employer to bargain with the union if it had the support of a majority of workers prior to the election. And the PRO Act reinstates an Obama administration rule, which was repealed by the Trump administration, to require employers to disclose the names and payments they make to outside third-party union-busters that they hire to campaign against the union.
  3. Winning first contract agreements when workers organize and protecting fair share agreements. The law requires employers to bargain in good faith with the union chosen by their employees to reach a collective bargaining agreement—a contract—addressing wages, benefits, protections from sexual harassment, and other issues. But employers often drag out the bargaining process to avoid reaching an agreement. More than half of all workers who vote to form a union don’t have a collective bargaining agreement a year later. This creates a discouraging situation for workers and allows employers to foster a sense of futility in the process. The PRO Act establishes a process for reaching a first agreement when workers organize, utilizing mediation and then, if necessary, binding arbitration, to enable the parties to reach a first agreement. And the PRO Act overrides so-called “right-to-work” laws by establishing that employers and unions in all 50 states may agree upon a “fair share” clause requiring all workers who are covered by—and benefit from—the collective bargaining agreement to contribute a fair share fee towards the cost of bargaining and administering the agreement.
  4. Protecting strikes and other protest activity. When workers need economic leverage in bargaining, the law gives them the right to withhold their labor from their employer—to strike—as a means of putting economic pressure on the employer. But court decisions have dramatically undermined this right by allowing employers to “permanently replace” strikers—in other words, replace strikers with other workers so the strikers no longer have jobs. The law also prohibits boycotts of so-called “secondary” companies as a means of putting economic pressure on the workers’ employer, even if these companies hold real sway over the employer and could help settle the dispute. The PRO Act helps level the playing field for workers by repealing the prohibition on secondary boycotts and prohibiting employers from permanently replacing strikers.
  5. Organizing and bargaining rights for more workers. Too often, employers misclassify workers as independent contractors, who do not have the right to organize under the NLRA. Similarly, employers will misclassify workers as supervisors to deprive them of their NLRA rights. The PRO Act tightens the definitions of independent contractor and supervisor to crack down on misclassification and extend NLRA protections to more workers. And, the PRO Act makes clear that workers can have more than one employer, and that both employers need to engage in collective bargaining over the terms and conditions of employment that they control or influence. This provision is particularly important given the prevalence of contracting out and temporary work arrangements—workers need the ability to sit at the bargaining table with all the entities that control or influence their work lives.

The PRO Act does not fix all the problems with our labor law, but it would address some fundamental problems and help make it more possible for workers to act on their federally-protected right to join together with their coworkers to bargain with their employer for improvements at their workplace. Research shows that workers want unions. There is a huge gap between the share of workers with union representation (11.9 percent) and the share of workers that would like to have a union and a voice on the job (48 percent). The PRO Act would take a major step forward in closing that gap.

For more information on the importance of unions and collective bargaining to working people and our economy, see the materials developed in connection with Building Worker Power: A Project of the AFL-CIO and the Economic Policy Institute.