PRO Act passes; BlueGreen Alliance says green union jobs possible
Union leaders, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and members of Congress at a press conference with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Feb. 5. | Nancy Pelosi via Twitter

WASHINGTON—Turning aside a multitude of Republican “poison pill” schemes, the Democratic-run U.S. House passed the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act, the nation’s most-comprehensive pro-worker labor law reform in decades, 224-194. Five Republicans and 219 Democrats voted for it.

And as strenuous worker lobbying by e-mail and toll-free phone preceded the Feb. 6 late-evening win, the head of the labor-environmentalist BlueGreen Alliance said he believes the “green jobs” his group pushes for will increase in number, pay well, and likely be union jobs, too, thanks to the legislation.

But alliance Executive Director Jason Walsh also concedes, from past service in Democratic President Barack Obama’s White House, that the PRO Act won’t move in the GOP-run Senate. “We’re laying groundwork for the future” for both unions and greens, he says.

Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance. | BGA

Pro-worker lawmakers and union legislative representatives crafted the PRO Act (HR2474). The legislation would largely undo 72 years of GOP anti-worker laws, court rulings, and National Labor Relations Board decisions that have hamstrung organizing and made it almost impossible for workers to join together and fight for themselves.

Among its reforms, the PRO Act would repeal the section of the GOP-passed 1947 Taft-Hartley Act that permits states to enact so-called “right to work” laws, which let workers use union benefits and protections without joining or paying one red cent for them.

It also would outlaw “captive audience” meetings where bosses can force workers to listen to anti-union diatribes, often from “consultants,” aka union-busters.

And the PRO Act would impose stiff fines on labor law-breakers and mandate illegally fired workers immediately get their jobs back. Current labor law, as emasculated by the GOP, has minimal fines and workers have to wait years to get their jobs back, if at all. And almost all employers only have to post we-broke-the-law-and-won’t-do-it-again notices.

HR2474 would also order bosses to bargain with newly chosen unions within a set time of election wins, and the election period would be shorter. If bargaining failed, there would be mandatory arbitration for that first contract.

The measure also says a corporate employer—think McDonald’s headquarters—and its local franchise holders are jointly responsible for obeying or breaking labor law. And it would narrow, if not completely eliminate, bosses’ “independent contractor” misclassification of workers. Misclassification eliminates any labor law protection, plus employers’ Social Security, Medicare, jobless benefits, and workers comp payments.

Passing the PRO Act “is a matter of life or death. Just ask registered nurses,” National Nurses United Executive Director Bonnie Castillo wrote in a recent op-ed in The Hill.

“Every day, we go to work in an immoral health care industry that values profits over people. Our corporate hospital employers assign us far too many patients to safely care for at once, increasing the chance of harmful patient outcomes and nurse distress. The hospitals often barely stock our supply closets using cost-cutting methods lifted from the auto industry, without regard to the fact that our patients are human beings, not cars.”

In a statement that could apply economy-wide, she explained: “In so many ways, our ‘health care’ system is not about health. It’s about profit, and the only way nurses can bring the focus back to our patients is to stand together in a union and collectively demand change.”

For the words “health care system is not about health,” substitute “industry is not about products.” For “nurses,” substitute “workers.” For “patients” substitute “people.”

Unions set up toll-free numbers for workers and their allies to call lawmakers and lobby for the PRO Act’s House passage. They also sent out e-mail alerts and launched social media campaigns. And they enlisted environmental groups as their allies, Walsh told Press Associates Union News Service in a telephone interview.

And its passage will help create “green” union jobs, too, he predicts.

“This is a strategy of confronting the climate crisis and economic inequality” at the same time, he said. “We need to see the two as integrated and need to confront them in tandem.”

The Steelworkers co-founded the alliance, along with the Sierra Club. Other unions, including the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Bricklayers, are members, as are other green groups.

But some unions are wary of joining the environmentalists, especially when greens push for reduction and elimination of fossil-fuel emissions which cause global warming. That would cost jobs for coal miners and energy company workers, the dissenting unions contend.

A graphic from the AFL-CIO’s campaign urging workers to lobby their congressperson to vote in favor of the PRO Act. | AFL-CIO

Walsh’s answer is that the new “green economy” the alliance envisions, and which it pushed in congressional hearings last year, will create many more union jobs in new industries—jobs those skilled energy company workers and others can step into.

But only if it’s easier to organize such new “green” firms, and that’s where the PRO Act comes in, he adds.

“We view union membership and density and power as absolutely necessary to bringing income equality,” he said. “It’s particularly important we have it”—the PRO Act—“to make sure the environmental jobs we create are good family-sustaining and preferably union jobs.”

While green industries have been growing, green union jobs haven’t, he admits. Labor law reform to make it easier to organize, and specifically HR2474, would change that trend. “Green job” workers, like their colleagues in other occupations “are fired, harassed, and have their rights violated when they try to organize.”

The result: According to nonpartisan reports, only 4% of solar power generation jobs and 5% of wind power generation jobs were union jobs. And for all of the progressive statements and goals of wind and solar plant owners, they—like other bosses—fiercely resist unionization, he added, citing recent cases in New York City and Texas.

The Texas labor law violators were so flagrant that even anti-worker GOP President Donald Trump’s National Labor Relations Board ordered the firm, Gestamp, to recognize and bargain with the Plumbers and Pipefitters.

Walsh admits green groups in the past haven’t pushed unionization in their long campaign to change the economy away from fossil fuels. That’s important because the lack of emphasis makes unions wary of joining the greens—especially since union density in coal mining, electric power generation, and natural gas is double or more of that in green industries.

“And what the PRO Act does not do is to make investments in coal communities,” to grow new businesses—unionized businesses—that can hire those workers, he adds. Alternatively, it’s to ensure future green jobs are also well-paying union jobs. “We need to do whatever we can” for workers who lose jobs in the conversion, Walsh concedes.

That combined objective sent the alliance’s green group members to lobby their legislative allies to pass the PRO Act, Walsh says. But before workers, greens, and their allies succeeded in the House, they had to beat back a raft of Republican poison pill amendments to the PRO Act.

To show GOP feelings toward workers and unions, their amendments would, among other changes, eliminate dues check-offs after union contracts expire, even if the two sides were still in bargaining. In right-to-work states, workers could opt out of checkoffs at any time. Those two measures would hurt unions—and their ability to defend workers—in the pocketbook.

Some other GOP amendments would keep the misclassification of independent contractors intact, let the “joint employers” get away from bouncing workers’ rights and complaints from the corporate headquarters to the local outlet and back, ban labor law from covering any “religious organizations”—such as hospitals and schools—and write into legal stone past court rulings letting bosses “permanently replace” strikers.

Pro-worker Democrats submitted some amendments, too. Chief among them, from Reps. Tim Ryan and Marcy Kaptur, both D-Ohio, would jump workers’ unfunded vested pension benefits to the head of the creditors’ line when a firm files for bankruptcy.

Under the GOP-passed 15-year-old business-written bankruptcy law rewrite, workers’ wages are last, not first, in line. And unfunded pensions get dumped on the federal Pension Benefits Guaranty Corp.

By contrast, the GOP also wants to legalize employers’ notices of how to decertify unions. Rep. Robert Roe, R-Tenn., wants to outlaw voluntary employer “card check” recognition of unions in all cases. An NLRB decision in 1962 legalized card check.

And notoriously anti-worker Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.—who once told reporters unions are unnecessary and should be banned—wants to let people use the “n” word or the “c” word or other slurs against you and get away with it.

“Profanity or language that is derogatory on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability is not protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act and employers may suspend, permanently discharge, or otherwise discipline employees for using such language,” her amendment says.

Update: This story was updated to reflect the passage of the act and the final vote tally in the House.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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