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US: Pass PRO Act to Empower Workers, Protect Rights

Reverse Decades-Long Assault on Right to Join Unions; Curb Inequality

Frontline healthcare workers in Minnesota picket for fair wages.  © 2021 SEIU Healthcare Minnesota

(Washington, DC) – The United States Senate should pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), five human rights and labor groups said today in releasing a question-and-answer document about the issue. The Senate should seize on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle rampant economic inequality by empowering workers and building a more just and human rights-based economy.  

The 16-page document, “Why the PRO Act Matters for the Right to Unionize in the United States” examines how the PRO Act would bring the US closer to meeting its obligations under international law by eliminating many of the barriers that prevent workers from exercising their rights to organize a union. Protecting these rights is critical to reducing economic inequality, as it allows workers to bargain collectively  for fair wages, adequate benefits, and safe working conditions, reducing power imbalances between workers and employers. US President Joe Biden has pledged his support for the PRO Act, which the US House of Representatives passed on March 9, 2021.

“The Covid-19 pandemic cruelly exposed how severe inequality is in the United States, where many low-wage workers face hunger, suffer from inadequate health care, or risk losing their homes, while the affluent have recovered far more quickly and even thrived,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Passing the PRO Act would be a major step toward tackling inequality by protecting workers’ rights, a key element in a just and human rights-based recovery.”

The groups are Human Rights Watch, AFL-CIO, Amnesty International USA, the Economic Policy Institute, and the National Employment Law Project. The US’ failure to meet its international human rights obligations to protect the right to unionize has opened the door to anti-union tactics and undermined organizing efforts, the groups said.

"The PRO Act is one of the most consequential pieces of US human rights legislation in our lifetimes. It will strengthen workers’ ability to come together and demand a fair share of the wealth we create—boosting wages, securing better health care and rooting out discrimination,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “The past year has laid bare the enormous injustices facing millions of the United States’ working people who keep the country afloat. We cannot allow those systemic failures to persist for another moment."

The groups describe in the document  how the PRO Act would close many existing loopholes in US law and extend the right to unionize to a broad swath of workers. The act is badly needed to address the modern realities of the US workforce. It would make it easier for the subcontracting workforce to organize and recognize app-based “gig” workers as employees for the purposes of collective bargaining, extending freedom of association rights to as many as 1.6 million workers.

"The PRO Act is long overdue labor law reform that will empower millions of US workers to have a say at their workplace,” said Brian Chen, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “Particularly for the millions of people who work in precarious jobs without employment protections, the PRO Act cuts through the convoluted work structures devised by union-busting employers and finally grants those workers the ability to build power with one another.”

For decades, employers have engaged in anti-union-organizing drives. Employers are also increasingly using surveillance technologies  to monitor organizing efforts and exploiting their access to workers’ data to spread anti-worker messaging. The PRO Act establishes key safeguards that would curb these abusive tactics. It would also strengthen workers’ right to strike.

Furthermore, the PRO Act would hold employers accountable when they violate labor law. There are currently no civil penalties for employers who engage in anti-union discrimination. The existing remedies are so meager that they have little deterrent effect. The PRO Act would  authorize meaningful penalties for employers that violate workers’ rights and strengthen support for workers who suffer retaliation.

“We know that employers are charged with violating the law in 41.5 percent of union election campaigns,” said Celine McNicholas, government affairs director at the Economic Policy Institute. “Employers know that under current labor law, they will face no real consequences for violating workers’ rights. Passing the PRO Act would provide important reforms, including establishing meaningful penalties for employers that violate the law. This will help restore workers’ ability to organize with their co-workers and negotiate for better pay, benefits, and fairness on the job.”

The PRO Act would also help advance gender equality and racial justice because unions and collective bargaining help shrink the gender and Black-white wage gaps. It would also help undocumented workers, who are particularly vulnerable to employer retaliation, granting them compensation if they are fired for union organizing.

"The PRO Act would transform the ability of workers across the country to join together in union to ensure their labor is valued and respected by employers through their wages, benefits and treatment on the job,” said Tamara Draut, chief impact officer at Amnesty International USA and author of ‘Sleeping Giant: The Untapped Economic and Political Power of America's New Working Class.’ “The right to join in union is a human right that the United States is failing to protect, respect, and fulfill—passing the PRO Act would help to correct the current lopsided, employer-biased unionization rules that have fueled inequality, disrespect, and discrimination in the United States’ workplaces.”

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