Rep. Lucy McBath must vote ‘YES’ to keep trust of working class, push through popular legislation
GEORGIA — Workers deserve better. While the rights of American workers have all but disintegrated over the last couple of decades, now, more than ever, the ability of workers to demand better treatment and higher wages on the job represents a matter of life or death. Income inequality is skyrocketing, with the top 10% of all earners raking in 50% of all wages as of 2019.
Meanwhile, wages for the working class have stagnated as the cost of living steadily increases. Following the government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans are still contending with unemployment, and the count of Americans at risk of being evicted grows daily. On top of that, in the absence of universal health coverage, job loss oftentimes equates to loss of health insurance.
So, what’s the remedy? Due to current labor laws in the United States, many barriers stand in the way between workers and their ability to achieve a higher wage, access to health care, and other basic rights on the job. However, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (aka the PRO Act), which was stopped in the House of Representatives in Feb. 2020 and reintroduced in Feb. 2021, presents some potential solutions. The U.S. House of Representatives will likely vote on the bill the second week of March.
During its first go-around, the legislation won broad support amongst Democrats, with 196 co-sponsors in the House and 43 supporters in the Senate. The bill also garnered the support of then-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Moreover, 180 unions and 50 state labor federations support the legislation. Passing the PRO Act would essentially undo decades of backwards policies which rolled back protections for workers and increased barriers to organizing in the U.S. It would ensure the ability of workers to organize safely, securely, and with less interference from meddling employers.
The decline of unions in the U.S.
The right of workers to organize may sound like a novel concept to some Americans, especially those living in “right-to-work” states such as Georgia. Georgia is one of 28 states with “right-to-work” laws, meaning that it’s illegal for workers to negotiate a contract requiring union members to pay costs used to sustain the union financially.
These restrictions are common in the South, and make it difficult for workers to unionize effectively. In fact, the South is home to four of the five states with the lowest union density rates in the country. According to the 2019 Current Population Survey, Georgia ranked 45th nationwide — followed by Texas, Virginia, and the Carolinas — in terms of union membership rate, with only 4.5% of Georgia’s workforce represented by a union. Unsurprisingly, the origins of Georgia’s anti-labor policies can be traced back to racist sentiments and policies enacted under Jim Crow, and the desire to maintain segregation under the guise of being “pro-business”. Georgia became a right-to-work state in 1947.
Overall, union membership in the U.S. has been in decline for decades, beginning in the late 1970s, followed by intense deregulation efforts by the Reagan administration. By the end of the 1980s, less than 17% of the American workforce was unionized — a steep step down from 28% at the labor movement’s peak in the 1950s. As of 2020, only 12.1% of U.S. workers (15.9 million) were represented by a union, which constitutes a 444,000 person decrease from 2019. While the decline in union density can be seen across the majority of OECD countries, unionization rates still vary widely today — ranging from 92% in Iceland to as low as 9% in France.
What’s the benefit of a union?
Despite propaganda to the contrary, many real, material benefits come with union membership. Across the board, union members are more likely to be afforded paid sick leave, employer-provided health insurance, higher average wages, and increased job security. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 86% of unionized workers are afforded paid sick leave, compared with only 72% of non-unionized workers. Similarly, 94% of unionized workers have employer-provided health insurance, compared with only 66% of non-unionized workers.
Union membership also correlates with higher wages. Union members earn 11.2% more on average than their non-unionized counterparts, even when controlling for industry, education, and experience. Not only that, but unions have historically worked to set industry standards that in turn benefited all workers within a sector, in what are referred to as “spillover effects”. Union membership also leads to increased job security. At the onset of the pandemic, union workers were better able to retain their jobs despite massive layoffs across industries.
What problems with current labor law would the PRO Act solve?
While unions largely work to improve the material conditions of the working class, organizing under current labor laws is not a simple process. Though it’s easier to organize in some states than others, barriers remain across the board which allow employers to overstep their boundaries and meddle in the business of organizing workers. Employers are able to stall election processes, fire organized workers with little to no consequences, and control communications within the workplace to make organizing harder. Furthermore, undocumented workers and those employed by the “gig economy” are not afforded many of the same rights as other workers.
Below is a breakdown of each of these dilemmas under current law and what the PRO Act would do to address them.
- Employers can fire unionizing workers with little to no consequence
Employers are easily able to intimidate workers to prevent them from organizing. Although the purpose of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 is to protect the rights of private sector workers, the act imposes no real penalties on employers who legally intimidate or illegally fire workers who attempt unionization. This is exactly what happened to Instacart employees earlier this year.
Under the PRO Act, illegally fired or otherwise harmed workers are entitled to damages they incur following an illegal firing. Currently, harmed workers wanting to take legal action against their employers must rely on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to pursue a case on their behalf. The PRO Act would simplify this process and allow workers to take legal action independent of the NLRB.
- Employers interfere in election processes
Another issue plaguing workers is the ability of employers to interfere in the union election process. The standard procedure to form a union, which is known as majority sign-up or card-check recognition, requires the collection of petitions or other statements of support from fellow workers. Once a majority of workers is formed, the employer may voluntarily recognize the union. Under current law, however, employers are not required to recognize unions, and can instead purposefully delay election processes by requiring workers to go through the NLRB for approval.
Employers take advantage of the time in which the election process is delayed to wage a campaign against the union. Employers schedule hearings to investigate claims, oftentimes against the composition of the bargaining unit (the workers who compose union membership), all to further delay the election process. Under current law, an employer’s input is permitted in the determination of bargaining units. Typically, employers claim that more employees than are currently organized belong in the bargaining unit as a way to dilute union support. The PRO Act would reestablish the authority of union membership and the NLRB to define the bargaining unit without employer interference.
- Employers control workplace emails and can enforce mandatory anti-union meetings
Employers typically have exclusive control over communications in the workplace in the form of new member orientation materials, captive audience meetings to deliver anti-union messaging, and the prevention of employees from circulating emails related to union organizing. However, the PRO Act would ban captive audience meetings which require employee attendance at the risk of being fired or disciplined. It would also allow employees to organize over company email.
- Gig workers are denied basic rights on the job due to employee misclassification
Between 2010 and 2020, the share of American workers employed by the “gig economy” increased by 15% (or 6 million workers) — in part due to the rise in popularity of app-based services such as Uber and Instacart. While employers advertise such jobs as offering “autonomy” and “flexible work hours”, the reality is that contract workers are left to fend for themselves when it comes to acquiring health insurance, retirement savings and vacation time. Not only that, but under current law, workers classified as “independent subcontractors” (as opposed to full-time employees) are denied access to collective bargaining rights. With the passage of the PRO Act, the definition of “employment” would be redefined in such a way that gig workers misclassified as contractors would have their right to organize reinstated — allowing them to demand more from their employers.
- Organized immigrant workers aren’t offered the same protections
According to the National Labor Relations Acts, immigrants are entitled to the same rights to collective bargaining as other workers. However, a 2002 Supreme Court ruling (Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB) found that employers are neither required to provide backpay to, nor rehire, undocumented workers who are fired for organizing. The lack of protections for undocumented workers makes it nearly impossible to bargain for better working conditions, at risk of being fired or even deported. The PRO Act, however, would afford undocumented workers the right to compensation, in addition to the right to be rehired, in situations where they are wrongfully laid off for organizing.
What can we, as Georgians, do to pressure Congress to vote “YES” on the PRO Act?
Currently all but seven Democrats in the House support the PRO Act, and unfortunately our very own Lucy McBath of Georgia’s 6th district is one of those seven. Other Democrats that currently oppose the PRO Act are Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), Kendra Horn (Okla.), Kurt Schrader (Ore.), Joe Cunningham (S.C.), Henry Cuellar (Texas), and Ben McAdams (Utah). McBath, Horn, McAdams, and Cunningham all occupy tossup seats, according to the Jan. 31 Cook Political Report.
McBath narrowly beat Republican Karen Handel in 2018, becoming the first Democrat to win the district since 1993. Not only has the district historically voted Republican, but it is majority-white with a median household income of $100,110 (or simply put, upper-middle class), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With the 2022 U.S. House elections approaching, it’s likely that McBath is trying to not rock the boat in a district which has yet to turn solidly blue.
Whatever the reason, McBath (and all other Democrats) owes support to the working class. Voters in Georgia’s 6th district must organize to pressure Rep. McBath to support the PRO Act. Not only would passing this legislation be meaningful to Georgia’s workers suffering from “right-to-work” laws, employer misclassification, and lack of protections for undocumented Georgians, but public support for unions is actually on the rise.
According to GALLUP polls, union approval is at one of the highest rates it’s been in the last 50 years, with 64% of Americans saying they approve of labor unions as of 2019. Further, that support is across party lines for the American people — union approval has increased for both Democrats and Republicans since 2009. If McBath really wants to win broad support among the working class in the 2022 Congressional elections, she needs to show she’s here to support Georgia’s workers over corporations. Unions played a huge role in winning the 2020 Georgia Senate races, and denying their role in the electoral sphere is a grave mistake.
Want to learn more about how to get involved? Check Atlanta DSA’s Campaign to #PassthePROAct at atldsa.org/pro, and volunteer for one of our PRO Act phone banks with the North Fulton Branch!
General inquiries can be sent via email to [email protected].