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The PRO Act Could Transform the Labor Landscape

Jim Williams

Joe Biden promised to be the most pro-union president in modern history. He has a chance to prove it by passing the PRO Act, a sweeping labor law reform bill.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, speaks during a press conference advocating for the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, on February 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum / Getty Images)

Interview by
Alex N. Press

As Joe Biden enters the White House with slim majorities in the House and Senate, organized labor is making a concerted push for a major piece of legislation: the PRO Act. The bill is a wide-ranging labor law reform that would help workers fight back after decades of retreat in the face of aggressive employers. The AFL-CIO recently declared the PRO Act one of its top priorities.

The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) is leading the push for the PRO Act. The painters’ union organized its electoral work around the bill and has been holding public events on the legislation. Now, IUPAT is building up allies as it prepares to push the new presidential administration and Congress to pass the act. Recently, the union organized a town hall on the PRO Act, featuring IUPAT’s Jim Williams, vice president and director of organizing, along with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, Communications Workers of America (CWA) secretary treasurer Sara Steffens, House Education and Labor chair Bobby Scott, and Congressman Conor Lamb, among other speakers. Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Williams about the campaign.


ANP

To start, can you tell me about your members: Who are they, and what do they do?

JW

Sure. We’re a construction union, a member of the building trades. We represent different craft workers, construction workers. We’re called the painters’ union, so we represent commercial painters, industrial painters — the guys and gals that paint bridges, water tanks, highways, etc. We also represent drywall workers and finishers. We represent glass workers — the people that install glass on high-rise construction buildings and commercial glass. We manufacture glass. We represent a pretty broad sector of the construction industry.

ANP

As we all know, anti-union forces have been at war with workers since time immemorial. That war hasn’t slowed down in recent decades. What have the past few years looked like for your members?

JW

It’s death by a thousand cuts. The nature of employment for construction workers — and really, for the entire middle-class workforce — is death by a thousand cuts.

We have a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that is slanted against workers who are trying to organize. We have a Department of Labor that doesn’t enforce any of the laws of the land and, if anything, is undermining and changing the laws that govern right underneath the American workforce. We’ve seen such an uptick in worker misclassification that’s not enforced: workers that don’t work in traditional employment anymore and are classified wrongfully as independent subcontractors. We’ve seen immigrant workers vilified and demonized for working in our country and in our industry with zero rights and protections under the law, and nobody is doing anything to help immigrant workers gain collective strength and bargaining.

We’ve seen Janus come out of the Supreme Court, which basically made “right to work” the law of the land for any government employees. I could go on and on and on. We’ve also seen the sheer nature of collective bargaining be undermined in the form of having to pay more and more for health care, without a true health care program in this country to bring down cost or have any sort of government option. The majority of our members’ raises that they’ve been able to bargain for have had to go to pay for increased health care costs as opposed to increasing their wages and earning potential. And so, while there hasn’t been a death blow to labor unions, it’s really been a slow, steady, coordinated way of weakening our strength.

ANP

Explain what’s in the PRO Act.

JW

The PRO Act — the Protecting the Right to Organize Act — is the first piece of legislation that seeks to address seventy years of backward, corporate-leaning changes that have stripped away labor protections and laws through court decisions, the NLRB process, and anti-worker legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act. That was passed in 1947, and it made “right to work” the law of the land, did away with certain protections that unions had prior to that time.

The PRO Act seeks to correct a lot of the wrongdoings that have taken place since that time. It outlaws right to work, which would help a lot of workers in the South and the Midwest. It streamlines and modernizes the election process for workers trying to organize. It takes away the employer’s ability to hold captive-audience meetings, which they do regularly during organizing campaigns. It increases penalties for employers that do stand in the way of workers during an organizing campaign and puts restrictions on employers to prevent them from interfering. It would have forced arbitration and mediation, which would allow for workers to reach that first contract. And that’s so important when workers first organize: a lot of times, when workers organize and get to the bargaining table with their employers, the employer delays having to negotiate, and after a year, if they don’t negotiate a contract, the union loses their collective bargaining rights and goes away. The PRO Act fixes that.

Lastly, as far as the highlight, it does away with worker misclassification and seeks to redefine what employment means in this country for millions of workers who don’t even have access to collective bargaining because they’re wrongfully classified as independent subcontractors. It would open up collective bargaining to the gig economy, which is sorely needed as workers are being forced to work more and more in that independent subcontracted-type model. That alone would be a huge victory for the working class’s ability to reorganize our economy.

ANP

Can you talk a bit more about how the PRO Act addresses worker misclassification? As you know, Prop 22, which allows employers to violate workers’ rights by misclassifying them, passed in California. That model is coming for the whole country, with its proponents already setting up shop in other states. How does the PRO Act address this model?

JW

The PRO Act will do what’s been talked about in other administrations, which is rulemaking through the Department of Labor to clarify who the employer is. With Uber and Lyft, it’s almost impossible to say that they aren’t the employer, because of how workers have to use those platforms when working for them. In the construction industry, we’ve been dealing with this for decades. Employers secure a project or a job, and then hire a labor subcontractor who has twenty or thirty employees to do work like drywall finishing or installation, and they classify those workers as independent contractors. Everyone knows that when the direction and the contract itself is secured by a prime contractor, they shift all the liabilities onto the workforce, and given the current status of labor law, those workers have no recourse and no ability to collectively bargain because they don’t directly work for the employer. Legally, they’re self-employed, and there is no legal way for those workers to band together and form a union.

ANP

You mentioned immigrant workers when talking about your members. If you’re an immigrant worker, and you’re not in a union, what does the PRO Act offer you?

JW

The PRO Act fixes what is the single most destructive decision for immigrant workers in this country. Immigrant workers are supposed to be treated the same as citizens. They’re supposed to have access to collective bargaining; they’re supposed to have access to the National Labor Relations Act. But a Supreme Court decision was made that [says] while that’s technically true, when a worker is fired during an organizing campaign, if they aren’t here legally, they aren’t entitled to back pay; they aren’t entitled to be rehired by the employer. It throws a wet blanket over organizing campaigns for immigrant workers because they do not have the same rights as American workers when it comes to the recourse during an organizing campaign. The PRO Act fixes that. They would be eligible for back pay and all the same rights as other workers. Employers are so skilled at pitting immigrant workers versus US-born workers in organizing campaigns. They threaten them with deportation, and they certainly explain to them that their rights are different from US citizen workers in the same organizing campaigns.

ANP

The painters’ union took the lead within organized labor on pushing the PRO Act. Your recent town hall had Richard Trumka speaking, and the AFL-CIO has said this is their priority for the year. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) have joined in a serious way, too. But what led your union to get out front on this campaign?

JW

Our union has invested a ton of energy and resources into organizing over the years. We know that if we don’t organize, we don’t survive, and we have to organize differently. However, the PRO Act became our rallying cry at our convention last year. We passed a resolution that said we would never support a politician that isn’t supportive of the PRO Act. And we followed suit: we only endorsed candidates that pledge support of the PRO Act because we know that’s the most important thing for the working class in this country. We need strong labor laws.

We also have a pretty good memory. In 2008, when then senator Obama, who pledged his support of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), became president, he had larger majorities in both the House and the Senate. We had the opportunity then to pass the EFCA, but it wasn’t the priority of the administration. When we met with candidates during this last election cycle, we made sure that the PRO Act was number one on our issues, and we said, if it’s not in your top priorities, we’ll make sure to never support you again. It’s that important to us. We knew that there’s going to be a lot of competing interests for legislative priorities going into a new Biden administration and going into a time period where we have slim majorities, but majorities nonetheless, in both the House and the Senate. So we have to hold the politicians accountable that we supported. So we wanted to get out early and get out in front, because far too often, labor law reform is not a public debate. Too often, it’s done with politicians inside Washington, DC, in private. But we feel that with the current majorities, we’re at least going to get labor law reform and the PRO Act in the public sphere — the debate can be public. For us, that’s a win to be able to once and for all talk about the broken labor laws in this country and build a movement that includes people beyond the labor movement to fight for real change in this country. We think it’s the most important piece that labor unions can be doing at this time.

ANP

I wanted to ask about the EFCA. As you said, the last time that labor was in this position, Obama said he was going to push the EFCA, and then he didn’t do it. You’re saying that your union and other unions as well have been more aggressive with politicians about the need for the PRO Act to be a priority. But what is the plan to get it passed? What does holding politicians accountable mean?

JW

The plan started with winning elections in November and making the PRO Act the legislation that we organized our electoral work around. But going forward, we have to hold Joe Biden at his word. Biden says he wants to be the most pro-union president in generations. Well, the only way to do that is to pass real, substantial labor law reform and make it a priority.

President Obama chose not to make it a priority. He made health care a priority; he made the Affordable Care Act his monumental piece of legislation. I think those of us that were around back then realize that we could have done more, and that we should have done more, to push publicly for the Employee Free Choice Act. We’re making the calculation that if we’re going to get the opportunity to be more public at a time where people’s views on unions are even more favorable than they were in 2008 — pro-union sentiment among the workforce is higher than it’s been in generations — we need to capitalize on that. We have to take the argument beyond the halls of Washington. We have to take it directly to the American public, and that’s what we’re prepared to do. Any movement that’s ever going to win real progress has to involve the American public rather than a handful of politicians. I believe that was a mistake we made in 2008–9, and we can’t make that same mistake twice.

ANP

I think a lot of people will say that sure, some politicians support the PRO Act, but in the Senate, organized labor is not going to get the sixty votes it needs to override a Republican filibuster. What do you say to that?

JW

I say, first of all, let them filibuster, to show the public where they’re at. Secondly, if we hadn’t won in Georgia, I don’t think it would have ever seen the light of day under Mitch McConnell, but having majority leader [Chuck] Schumer there getting it up on the floor for debate is a great place to start, so that the American public can see that there are two sides: one that supports corporations and one that supports workers. But there has to be filibuster reform, and we have to get creative. I’d call on Senator Schumer to get as creative as possible, to use tools like reconciliation if need be. We’re pushing everyone to live up to their word, and that’s going to play out.

ANP

There’s been a shift happening among union members’ political affiliation. Sometimes, the media overstates it, but there’s a flow to the Republican Party happening among union members. The majority are still voting Democrat, but Trump enjoyed increased support among these voters. What is the connection between pushing politicians to prioritize the PRO Act and to make their colleagues go on the record about it, and shifting that political trend among union members?

JW

Shifting voting behavior among union members takes deep, deep member education and member outreach. I think the biggest lesson for labor unions in the era of Trump has to be that if we’re not talking to our members, somebody else is. Our members are hurting in this economy just as much as nonmembers, and to take members for granted in their political beliefs is a huge mistake for labor leaders and labor organizations. So number one, we’ve learned a lot in the era of Trump about how we have to communicate with our members.

Number two, it really does take education about what labor law means in this country. Far too many workers do not understand their current labor rights, why the laws are broken, and why they need to change, and that’s including union members. We’ve tried to take a very deep member education approach, doing things like town halls but also house-calling our members about the issues. When we spoke to our members about the PRO Act and the different components of it, without even naming the PRO Act, but instead talking about worker misclassification, talking about right to work, talking about how candidates have to support a change in the way union elections are conducted and workers’ right to organize, supermajorities of our members supported it. It was 80–82 percent of our members on the different issues, regardless of their party affiliation, [who] were supportive of those issues.

The problem is connecting them back to the candidates that actually support those issues. So for us, it was a matter of digging deeply and explaining to him that there are certain candidates that support these issues, and there are candidates that are diametrically opposed, starting with folks like Donald Trump and working its way through to Mitch McConnell and a lot of the other conservative right-wing senators and congressional delegations. It’s going to take that type of deep member education in order to win back those members that don’t quite connect the candidates to the issues.

ANP

Is there anything else you want people to know about your strategy going forward?

JW

For us, as an organizing union, we talk about this often, but our actions don’t always follow what we speak of, and that is how to work in coalition with other like-minded, progressive organizations. Knowing how to do that is the road map for how to pass the PRO Act. Our union has invested a ton of effort and energy in working with different movements like the immigrants’ rights community, the workers’ center movement, the climate justice community, the civil rights community, and Black Lives Matter. We’re digging deep and explaining how labor law, and labor law reform, can be a fix to a lot of the social justice issues that exist in this country. But if we don’t have those deep relationships and if we’re not there for each other’s fights, we can’t expect other movements to be there for us in this battle to pass the PRO Act. I think that’s the key in moving any sort of social change. We have to be legitimate, and we have to be real when we work in coalition with different movements, and that’s going to be the thing that passes the PRO Act at the end of the day.

ANP

During the PRO Act town hall, you had a speaker from the Sunrise Movement, and you also talked about being out on the streets all summer in support of the protests against police brutality. That certainly doesn’t fit with the usual assumptions about the building trades’ views on the environment and on racial justice.

JW

There is a long history within the building trades that goes way back beyond the current leadership and what the current building trades unions are trying to do to grow our influence, and there’s a lot of healing that needs to take place. The movement against police brutality and against racism in general presents an opportunity for the building trades that need to do some of that healing. Those deep divides are legitimate: workers of color have been excluded from labor unions like building trades unions. We have a lot of work to do, and that’s why our union is taking a very active and outward approach at bridging that gap and healing those wounds. There are bigger fights to be fought.