The Protecting the Right to Organize Act bears the interesting distinction of being supposedly “pro-worker” legislation that mostly rolls back individual workers’ rights. The legislation’s true purpose is to ensure that union leaders can tell workers to “get in line.”
The most obvious transgression is the bill’s prohibition on state right to work laws, which 27 states currently have. All a right to work law does is say that a worker does not have to join or otherwise support a union in order to keep their job. Nothing prevents a worker from joining a union if that is what they want.
Technically, a right to work law restricts management by making it illegal for employers to sign union-management contracts that include so-called “security clauses” that force all workers to either join the union or pay it a regular fee. In right to work states, workers who believe their union is inept, corrupt, or just not representing their interests have a powerful way to hold it to account. If the PRO Act passes, those workers lose that right — and potentially part of their paycheck.
Incidentally, right to work laws are not incompatible with strong unions. Nevada has been right to work since 1952, and it has a unionization rate of 13.4 percent, well above the national average of 10.8 percent. Unions claim that workers who don’t pay dues become free riders on the backs of dues-paying workers. But it’s telling that unions never request being released from the responsibility of representing those supposed deadbeats. They’d rather have the arguing point along with the workers’ money. That’s what eliminating right to work laws is really about: making it legal for unions take money from the paychecks of people who don’t want to join.
Another major PRO Act provision, the one intended to prevent employee “misclassification,” limits workers’ rights by making it illegal for them to have a “side-hustle.” The legislation allows workers to accept short-term contracts only if they are “customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business of the same nature as that involved in the service performed.” In other words, if this type of freelancing is their main way of earning a living. A worker who has a full-time job but wants to earn extra dollars doing something different, like rideshare driving for a few hours a week, would no longer have that option. That’s just wrong. Shouldn’t workers have the right to decide how they spend their own time?
Then there’s the PRO Act’s provision that requires employers to turn over all of their workers’ contact information, including personal email and home address, to unions that are mounting an organizing bid. The worker has absolutely no say in this. If a worker were to ask their employer to keep this information private, the employer would have to turn them down. Nothing currently prevents a worker from turning over this information to a union voluntarily. In the age of social media, they can easily share that information online. Clearly, this provision is there mainly to make it harder for workers to avoid the union.
There are a few worthwhile provisions of the PRO Act that give workers new rights as opposed to taking them away, such as the provision prohibiting employers from forcing workers to attend mandatory meetings intended to persuade the workers to oppose the union. That’s helpful. Unfortunately, it is outweighed by the new restrictions the legislation would impose restrictions on the rights of individual workers to say “no” to unions.
The late AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka often claimed that 60 million workers were eager to sign up for union membership. But if what he claimed were true, the PRO Act would be unnecessary. For a worker who genuinely wants to sign up, the legislation changes very little. It’s the worker who opposes or just doesn’t care for the union who will be impacted the most.
An individual worker should absolutely have the right to join with other workers to collectively bargain as a union. An individual worker should also absolutely have the right to decide against joining a union. The PRO Act drastically limits the right of an individual worker to say no.
Sean Higgins is a research fellow for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.