Close to Home: Restore the right to organize a union

Today’s pandemic-related recession is the most severe since the Great Depression. President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package is a significant step toward jump-starting the economy, but more is needed to address structural inequality and promote shared prosperity. Reforming labor law is essential to that effort; of critical importance is restoring workers' rights to organize a union.

Recently, the House approved the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which the Senate will soon consider. Biden has pledged to sign it.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, union workers earn 13% more than nonunion. Union workers are much more likely to receive employer-provided health insurance, guaranteed defined-benefit pensions and paid time off. Also, union workplaces are safer than nonunion because workers receive more health and safety training and are protected from repercussions if they identify workplace hazards.

The EPI has shown that employers were charged with violating federal labor law in 41% of union elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

In effect, the National Labor Relations Act, enacted by Congress in 1935 to ensure the constitutional right of free association, no longer protects employee rights to organize and form a union.

A 2018 poll by MIT researchers found that half of nonunion workers would join a union if given the opportunity — but only if protected by labor law reform.

The PRO Act would:

— Bar mandatory anti-union meetings with supervisors.

— Streamline the election process to prevent unwarranted delays.

— Permit the National Labor Relations Board to seek injunctions and order immediate reinstatement of unlawfully discharged workers.

— Prohibit misclassification of employees as independent contractors to deprive workers of their right to join a union.

— Authorize the NLRB to levy substantial fines for retaliating against pro-union workers.

Finally, the PRO Act would restore the right to strike by barring permanent replacements when workers lawfully strike. President Ronald Reagan undermined that right, labor’s most potent weapon, when he fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981.

Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama recently rejected affiliation with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The union attributed the loss to an “atmosphere of confusion, coercion and fear of reprisals,” vowed to file an unfair labor practices complaint and urged approval of the PRO Act to ensure free and fair union elections at Amazon.

Low-income, women and voters of color overwhelmingly supported the Biden-Harris ticket and Democratic candidates in November. On Election Day, Biden declared that he would be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” By enacting the PRO Act, Democrats can open the doors to the middle class for millions of essential workers and forge an enduring new majority.

Note: Reps. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, will speak about the PRO Act at an online town hall sponsored by the North Bay Labor Council at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Register in advance for this important Town Hall.

Martin J. Bennett, a research and policy analyst for UNITE HERE Local 2850, serves on the executive board of the North Bay Labor Council.