An effort in Congress to make it easier for working people to join labor unions took a big step forward on Thursday when 224 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. "It's unfortunate that workers need an act of Congress to get us back to the original intent of the National Labor Relations Act," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "But it's heartening that House members from both parties can agree on a strategy for strengthening this landmark law that has helped make the lives of countless working people better over the last 85 years."
Sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia and introduced last May, the PRO Act calls for such modernizing the definition of unfair labor practices and for allowing fines or lawsuits against employers who keep workers from forming workplace bargaining units, among other reforms. "Evidence and experience demonstrate that labor unions are one of the most powerful tools workers have to improve the standard of living for themselves and their families," said Scott, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. "The PRO Act is a comprehensive proposal to ensure that workers have the right to stand together and negotiate for higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions."
The act, H.R. 2474, aims to repeal the so-called "right-to-work" laws, enacted in 27 states, that openly discourage workers from organizing and allow employees to be free riders, reaping the benefits of union membership like contract negotiations and enforcement without contributing to their costs.
"The PRO Act would help stabilize the power balance in the workplace and empower the middle class to grow stronger," said Political and Legislative Affairs Department Director Austin Keyser, who noted that recent national polls have shown that approval of unions in general is trending upward, with about half of all non-organized workers saying they would join a union if they could. Labor activists hope the stronger penalties prescribed by the PRO Act will make employers think twice before interfering with workers' rights to organize and bargain for contracts. The bill also targets the so-called "captive audience" meetings that employers often use to bully workers who are thinking about unionizing.
The House Education and Labor Committee approved the PRO Act in September, and then it sat untouched for months. But thanks largely to a steady stream of activist phone calls from members of the IBEW and other labor unions since then, Keyser said, 76 representatives were moved to sign on to a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California in January, asking for a full House vote on the measure.