Construction employers in the US have denounced dramatic legislation introduced in Congress yesterday intended to bolster workers’ rights and strengthen the power of unions to bargain for wages, benefits and workplace safety.
Democrats say the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would help reverse decades of growing income inequality, arguing that from 1980 to 2017 average incomes for the bottom 90% of American households increased by just 1.1% while average incomes for the wealthiest 1% increased by more than 184%.
But employers group the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) denounced the legislation, saying it would "unleash strikes and disruptions that will kill jobs [and] hurt recovery".
The act was first introduced in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives in 2019, but it did not pass in the Republican-controlled Senate the following year.
Although Democrats control both houses now – the Senate by just one vote – the act could fail again in the Senate because of the "cloture rule" which requires 60 members to agree to end a filibuster and proceed to a vote. That would require 10 Republican senators to support the act.
According to law firm Taylor English, the PRO Act is designed to "make it easier for employees to form and join a union and to limit employers’ ability to ward off unionisation".
Its specific measures include stricter rules on classifying workers as independent contractors; legalising frequent or short strikes and preventing employers from hiring permanent strike replacements; imposing a 90-day limit to employer-union negotiations, after which they go to mediation, then arbitration; banning "right to work" laws that prohibit employees having to pay union dues as a condition of employment; and increased penalties for employers found to have violated federal labour relations law.
"The PRO Act is anti-worker, anti-privacy and anti-recovery," said AGC chief executive officer, Stephen E. Sandherr. "The measure threatens workers’ absolute right to a free, fair and secret union ballot. There is something fundamentally un-American about subjecting workers to intimidation and coercion when it comes to deciding whether and how to organize and seek representation at the workplace."
He added it would "make France look like the land of labor harmony compared to the US".
The US Chamber of Commerce also denounced the act, saying: "It’s disappointing to see members of Congress reintroduce this harmful piece of legislation. This legislation strips workers of their privacy, threatens private ballots, imposes California’s disastrous independent contractor test, jeopardizes employers’ right to free speech, and threatens the loss of a job should workers choose not to pay union dues. This bill is a threat to America’s workers, employers, and our economy."
Democrats say unions increase wages and tackle growing income inequality, citing studies showing that union members earn on average 19% more than comparable non-union workers.
"The decades-long assault on workers’ rights – led by special interests in state legislatures, courts, and employers across the country – has suppressed union membership and eroded America’s middle class," said Virginian Democrat congressman Bobby Scott, who introduced the act to the House yesterday.
"The Protecting the Right to Organize Act is a major step toward ensuring that workers can exercise their basic right to form a union and collectively bargain for higher pay, safer working conditions, and decent benefits – including paid leave, quality health care, and a secure retirement."
Democrats say the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the dramatic shift in power away from labour since the 1950s.
"Over the past year, workers across the country have been forced to work in unsafe conditions for insufficient pay, because they lacked the ability to stand together and negotiate with their employer," stated a press release issued by the House Committee on Education and Labor, which Scott chairs.
A Gallup poll in 2019 found that 64% of Americans approve of labour unions, up 16 percentage points from its 2009 low point.
Image: Construction worker in Atlanta, Georgia (Chandler Denise/Unsplash)