The PRO Act Is Not a Panacea for the Union Movement

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By Ann Montague

The “Protecting The Right To Organize Act” (PRO ACT 2021) was recently called a “Game-Changer for Labor” by Sonali Kolhatkar in an article in Counterpunch. The most important fact apparently forgotten was that a muscular and empowered working class does not come from legislation. A basic look at union history in the U.S. shows us the way.

President Franklin Roosevelt is often credited with “legalizing” unions. He signed the Wagner Act of 1935 (National Labor Relations Act). Roosevelt was vehemently opposed to unions in the public sector so they were excluded from the bill. Also work predominantly done by racial minorities was excluded. The bill did not cover any rights for agricultural workers or domestic service workers. 

This legislation was not passed and signed by President Roosevelt to create a strong union movement. It was just the opposite. It was to create a structure to gain control of unions. In the previous two years Roosevelt saw the rise of a militant labor movement and the biggest strike wave since the 1920’s. The Wagner Act was never effective in protecting the worker’s right to organize a union. This happened in the work site. There was a tremendous wave of sit-down strikes and more than 50% of those strikes were for union recognition. It was a couple of million workers in 1936-37 who won their right to a union through seizures of hundreds of factories and other workplaces. In a few hours or days workers were able to win from the bosses union rights that a piece of legislation could never deliver. From 1936-1945 the U.S. saw a radicalized working class. There were around 80,000 strikes by 42 million workers. (See “Twenty Years of the CIO: Labor’s Giant Step” by Art Pries for this union history).

Obama’s Broken Promise

When Barack Obama was running for President and looking for union endorsements he met with a large number of rank and file workers in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Obama promised that if he was elected President he would sign the Employee Fair Choice Act (EFCA). This is also known as “Card Check”. Workers could collect signed union cards. It’s purpose is to take the employer out of the  process. Soon after Obama’s inauguration he trashed EFCA, never to be heard of again.

It’s Just a Bill

But you don’t really need EFCA. It is just a bill. Last month the workers at Rawlins Nursing Home in Springfield Oregon collected signed union cards of 80 percent of the workers and gave them to the boss. They got no response and then were told to go to the NLRB for an election. The worker’s organizing committee said that would take too long so they took a strike vote instead which passed by 80 percent. 

The Oregon Experience

In 1973 the Oregon Legislature passed the Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act. The first strike by the 17,000 state workers in Oregon was in 1987. SEIU initiated a two-year organizing campaign and projected a strategy for a statewide strike aimed taking away management’s advantages in a strike situation by limiting their capacity to bring in replacement workers. It was to be a rolling strike. Rank and file leaders explained it to workers, “We will out think management by disrupting where they least expect. We will strike without warning, leaving dazed supervisors trying to assess the damage and jumpy at the prospect of the next work stoppage.”

It was a nine-day strike and we broke the Governor’s budget for the first time. Almost immediately at the behest of the Democratic Governor (“ This isn’t a strike, it is chaos.”) the Oregon Legislature in bipartisan agreement passed a bill making rolling strikes illegal because they disadvantaged management. That cannot be allowed, the twin parties of capitalism agreed. They passed the bill.

There is no doubt that union workers support the ProAct. It should be illegal to fire a worker because they are a union supporter. But no one thinks they will go to jail or be given a serious penalty. This bill does nothing to disrupt the billion dollar a year union busting industry. (See Martin Jay Levitt’s “Confessions of A Union Buster”) It increases the use the lengthy process of filing an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP).  

Clearly this bill is about bureaucratic changes at the NLRB. But is it a game changer? Its proposed changes are to take place far from the worksite where worker’s power lies. It was at the worksite – at the point of production – that the Wagner Act was implemented by sit-down strikers. It’s at the worksite where workers can collect union cards and strike for union recognition. It is at the worksite where workers can be creative and find ways to limit management’s advantage with strikes and work site actions.

If the Pro Act passes union workers will watch, but rank-and-file organizing at the worksite is still where our power lies.

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