With Democrats in control of national government, it’s time to reform our outdated, toothless labor laws | Opinion

Workers at Tattersall Distillery voted to unionize last year. Photo courtesy of Jonia Whitney.

The big thing we heard from candidates last year was their goal to build an economy that works for all of us, especially as we begin to try to address the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Income inequality was a crisis before COVID-19, and seeing so many “essential” workers risking their health while making poverty wages — all while the rich have gotten richer — shows we can’t wait a minute longer to change our economy.  

Here’s a key fact as we consider how to make our economy work for everyone: Workers that are in a union make nearly 20% more than non-union workers. Union workers also have a much higher likelihood of having benefits like paid time off, retirement accounts and health insurance. 

But our political system has put in place massive barriers to unionization. As someone who has spent the better part of the last decade helping workers form unions, it is clear to me that our outdated labor law is the culprit.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, was introduced last week in the U.S. House, and it gives us the best chance at rebalancing the scales for workers so we can start to fix the racial and economic inequalities harming our country. 

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the law which governs most private-sector collective bargaining, was codified in 1935. It is in desperate need of modernization so workers can have a fighting chance. If an employer breaks the NLRA, typically they are required to post a letter reminding their employee of their rights under the NLRA. But how effective is that? The NLRA has no teeth to prevent an employer from ignoring the law. If someone embezzled money from their workplace, would a fair punishment be posting up a notice? 

Why do we treat employers who break the law with tender hands while throwing the book at employees?

Employers can afford to hire attorneys to stretch union elections out over months or years. This is what happened this summer when Spyhouse workers attempted to form a Union with UNITE HERE! Local 17, where I serve as the secretary-treasurer. We had the support of over 90% of the workers when we filed for election, but it was delayed five months. During that time the strategy of the employer was to make life difficult at work, including anti-union meetings, in an attempt to force people to quit. Like many union elections, the employer successfully used their money to their advantage.

Employers frequently break the rules when dealing with workers who are trying to organize and form a union, but there are never any serious consequences. This may explain why unions have rarely been more popular over the past 50 years — with 65% support — yet the number of people who have a union continues to plummet

Another strategy employers use to prevent their employees even attempting to organize a union — rampant with the growth of the so-called “gig economy” — is to avoid calling them employees at all. In the past 5 years, we have seen an explosion of “app-based” work. From Uber to DoorDash, the people working for these employers are not legally considered employees; they are “independent contractors.” This prohibits these workers from having the freedom to form a union. Even though their work is controlled completely by their employers, there is an outdated loophole being used to enrich these corporations at the cost of their workers. 

The PRO Act would make breaking the NLRA an offense punishable by a fine of up to $100,000. This finally provides the teeth a law needs to be truly enforced. 

Instead of waiting months for a union election, under the PRO Act, the election would have to happen in three weeks. This takes a massive anti-union tool from the employers and levels the playing field for a fair union election. 

The PRO Act takes a modern understanding of employment and changes the definition of an employee to allow app-based workers to do what other workers have been able to do for years, collectively bargain together for better wages, benefits and working conditions. These are common sense changes that will help address the racial and economic inequalities so many politicians talk about wanting to address. 

Democrats have a second chance to get this right. After the 2008 election, Democrats controlled the White House and Congress, but they failed to fix labor law when they had a chance. Since then, it has only gotten harder for working people to provide for their families, and union membership has declined further. Workers deserve a fair chance at forming a union to help improve the lives of millions of Americans, and the PRO Act gives us just that.