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Democrats have an ambitious plan to save American labor unions

Republicans will hate it.

Union official Gary Herrera speaking at a rally with flags in the background.
Union official Gary Herrera speaks to International Longshore and Warehouse Union members in San Pedro, California, on April 16, 2019.
MediaNews Group via Getty Images

House Democrats have a plan to make unions great again.

They’re trying to get support for a sweeping labor reform bill that would reverse decades of Republican-backed policies meant to crush labor unions.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), introduced earlier this month by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), would push back on a series of Republican-backed laws that have cropped up in more than two dozen states in the past decade.

These so-called right-to-work laws let unionized workers skip out on paying union dues if they don’t want to. Normally, every worker chips in for the cost of negotiating a labor contract, because everyone in the bargaining unit benefits from it. Giving workers the option not to pay means many won’t, which then lowers a union’s membership and political influence. Unions have lost millions of dollars in states that have passed these laws.

The Democrats’ new bill would also allow workers to sue employers who illegally interfere with unionizing efforts, instead of forcing them to take all their complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency that enforces collective bargaining laws. The new bill would also let the board hit employers with fines if they break the law. Right now there’s currently no financial penalty for employers who illegally fire workers who are trying to unionize, for example.

These are just two key provisions in the bill, but they’re enough to shift significant power from businesses to employees. If passed, it would mark the biggest change to US labor laws since Congress gave American workers the right to unionize back in 1935.

Unions are also pushing hard for these reforms, which they hope will reverse a sharp decline in union membership in the US.

Back in the 1950s, about one in three workers belonged to a labor union. Now it’s one in ten. And that decline is partly responsible for growing income inequality and stagnant wage growth in the US, research shows.

Still, it’s highly unlikely that any Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate would ever touch the new labor reform bill. In fact, they’re moving in the other direction, trying to expand a bill in the Senate that implements right-to-work laws in every state. And anti-union groups have already started bashing the Democrats’ labor reform bill, calling it “anti-worker” and “anti-freedom.”

Even with such slim prospects, House Democrats are introducing the bill at a crucial moment in the US labor movement. Despite declining union membership, more and more Americans support the idea of unionizing these days. In fact, there’s been a sharp increase in public support for labor unions in recent years, according to Gallup.

On top of that, a record number of workers across the country have been going on strike in the past year, demanding higher wages and better benefits as the economy expands. Democrats have sensed this shift in favor of unions, and their new bill would give workers even more momentum.

It would also end one of the GOP’s worst policy ideas.

Right-to-work laws are great for businesses, not workers

When Republicans took over a historic number of state legislatures in the 2010 midterms, they focused on two things: cutting taxes and weakening labor unions. With support from pro-business groups, lawmakers began to expand right-to-work laws from the South to Midwestern states with a strong union presence.

Before the expansion, employees at unionized workplaces in those states didn’t have to pay dues if they didn’t want to join the union, but they did have to pay agency fees. These fees are lower than the dues members pay, but they cover the union’s cost of negotiating employment contracts that benefit all workers in the unit.

In 2012, that began to change in the Midwest. Republican lawmakers passed right-to-work laws in Indiana and Michigan, two states with a large union presence. At the time, the country was in the midst of the Great Recession, and politicians promised that relaxing labor laws would attract businesses to the state and turn around the economy. Since then, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and West Virginia passed right-to-work laws too.

Economists have been closely studying the economic impact of these types of laws, and none has found any evidence to back up the claim that they’ve significantly boosted the local economy.

At best, the laws appear to slightly increase the number of businesses in the state, but they don’t really benefit workers. At worst, these laws lower average wages for all workers after they are passed. The latter is the most likely outcome, based on the research.

One study conducted by economist Lonnie Stevans at Hofstra University in 2007 found that right-to-work laws did lead to an increase in the number of businesses, but those economic gains mostly went to business owners. Meanwhile, average wages for workers went down.

Another study, in 2015, showed that Oklahoma’s right-to-work law didn’t lead to more jobs, but it also didn’t seem to affect wages.

The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, attributes right-to-work laws to a 3.1 percent decline in wages for union and nonunion workers after accounting for differences in cost of living, demographics, and labor market characteristics. In truth, it shouldn’t be a surprise that anti-union laws would hurt middle-class families. According to economists, the decline of labor unions is largely responsible for the growing income inequality in the United States.

Missouri could reverse the decline

Back in the 1950s, about one-third of American workers belonged to labor unions. Today, only 10 percent do.

Vox’s Dylan Matthew explains why this happened:

Labor unions were largely credited with helping maintain stable middle-class factory jobs in Rust Belt states like Missouri in the ’50s and ’60s. But the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, plus the aggressive corporate lobbying to weaken labor unions, has been a driving force behind the massive income gap in the United States.

In 1965, CEOs earned an average salary that was 20 times higher than the average worker’s; by 2016, their salaries were 271 times higher.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz described the dynamic this way:

Strong unions have helped reduce inequality, whereas weaker unions have made it easier for CEOs, sometimes working with market forces that they have helped shape, to increase it. The decline in unionization since World War II in the United States has been associated with a pronounced rise in income and wealth inequality.

During the Great Recession, American workers were more focused on keeping their jobs than demanding higher wages. But now, with the economy growing fast and wages barely rising, American workers are starting to push back. In 2018, voters blocked Republican lawmakers from making Missouri the 28th right-to-work state — a sign that the expansion had come to an end.

The Missouri vote was a turning point

Missouri voters made history in August when primary voters rejected Proposition A, blocking Republicans from enacting a right-to-work law in the state. The vote wasn’t even close: Voters rejected the ballot measure by a two-to-one margin.

Missouri was on track to become the 28th right-to-work state. In 2017, the state’s then-governor, Republican Eric Greitens, signed the right-to-work bill, saying it would encourage businesses to move to the state. Missouri would have followed Michigan, Wisconsin, and other Rust Belt states that have passed similar anti-union measures in recent years under pressure from business groups.

But workers and union leaders in Missouri put up a fight. They gathered about 300,000 signatures — more than double the number needed — to freeze the law, and put it on the ballot for voters to decide. Voters defeated the law.

In fact, it was the first time voters have overturned a right-to-work law through a ballot referendum since Ohio did something similar in 2011. No other state has even tried to in recent years. That vote was a crucial victory for the US labor movement at a time when Republican leaders, big businesses, and the courts have doubled down on their attempts to weaken the influence of labor unions and the workers they represent.

And after the US Supreme Court’s June ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which mandated right-to-work rules for all government unions, Missouri’s vote was the first sign that unions are far from dead.

The PRO Act would make it easier for workers to join unions

The Democrats’ new labor reform bill does several things, but the goal is to cut down on the bureaucracy that’s involved when workers try to form labor unions, and to penalize companies that try to stop them.

For example, it would bar businesses from making employees attend meetings to discourage them from joining a union, and would require both sides to quickly mediate disputes that often stall unionizing and contract negotiations (the current fight between Volkswagen and its factory workers in Tennessee is a good example).

The bill would also let the National Labor Relations Board hit companies with monetary penalties each time they fire someone for lawfully unionizing. Right now, companies just have to pay back wages to the employee and give them back their job if the board finds them at fault. Without penalties, companies have few incentives to follow the law.

And instead of leaving fired workers unemployed as they wait for their case to be heard, the bill would require businesses to immediately reinstate these employees while their case is pending. And they would no longer be able to fire employees who go on strike, which is currently legal in some cases.

Most importantly, though, the bill would allow workers to sue their bosses for violating their right to organize under the National Labor Relations Act. There are few things businesses hate more than the idea of a jury awarding millions of dollars to an aggrieved employee. That threat gives employers a strong incentive to follow the law.

Of course, it’s unsurprising that business groups hate the bill, or that they’ve already started lobbying against it. “It remains to be seen if there are enough votes for this bill in the House, but anyone who wants the economy to continue its upward trajectory should just say no,” wrote Sean Redmond, director of labor policy for the US Chamber of Commerce in an op-ed.

This means that House Democrats have a lot of work to do. They still need more than 120 of their members to join in support the bill, assuming that no Republicans will. Even if they get the votes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will likely let the bill wither.

But the bill’s obstacles are unlikely to dampen the momentum of the labor movement.

Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions, told members of Congress earlier this month that the shift is real.

“Something is happening in America. Workers are embracing collective action with a fervor I haven’t seen in a generation,” he said in his testimony, making his case for the PRO Act. “It is time for our laws to catch up.”

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