Debrief — America needs a 'ferociously bipartisan' coronavirus commission
Why the PRO Act is a victory for workers and our democracy
While most of the country has been focused on the Senate and President Trump's impeachment acquittal this week, over in the House U.S. Representatives voted on a bill that, if made into law, would have major consequences for our economy and democracy.
The House of Representatives just passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act, HR 2474), and it's one of the most significant pieces of labor legislation to come before Congress in years. The PRO Act would make it substantially easier for workers to form and join unions and for those unions to negotiate meaningful contracts with employers.
It would do so by extending union rights to workers who have been excluded from the reach of labor law; by introducing real penalties against businesses that break the law when their workers attempt to form unions; by requiring companies to bargain in good faith with unions; and by protecting workers' rights to use their most powerful weapon - the strike - against employers.
The PRO Act would be good for the economy and good for workers. Unions raise workers' wages, benefits, and working standards and give them more input into management decisions. One rigorous study of the effect of union strength on state economies from 1940 to 2009 shows no penalty to states with stronger labor movements (if anything, unions might be associated with slightly higher levels of growth).
In fact, decades of research on unions suggest that they contribute to more productive businesses, including by promoting better training and deeper exchange of information between workers and management. Unions also tend to reduce inequality; states, where unions are stronger, have reliably lower levels of economic inequality.
But it's not just about the economy. It's about our democracy. Businesses are almost always well-organized, resourced, and represented. But unions teach workers about politics; help them to volunteer, register, and turn out to vote; fund political efforts and candidates; and lobby for policies that can help workers at the local, state, and federal levels.
Research indicates that, where unions are weaker, politicians tend to be less responsive to the preferences of poorer and middle-class Americans and more attentive to the interests of the affluent and big business.
This explains why wealthy donors and businesses are so eager to hobble the labor movement. Between 2012 and 2017 alone, five states under conservative GOP control passed so-called "right-to-work" laws that permit workers to free-ride on union-bargained job protections without paying dues or fees to the union.
Many other states have gone further to enact additional cutbacks to labor rights. In fact, GOP lawmakers often make curbing unions one of their first legislative priorities even though they never campaigned on the issue - such as in Iowa, where Republicans pushed through union cutbacks as soon as they gained trifecta control in 2017, even though Iowans opposed the measure 62-21.
According to Gallup's longstanding tracking poll, support for unions among Americans is nearing a 50-year high, with 64 percent approval. So why do Republicans make union-busting such a priority? Research conducted at Columbia University (by one of the authors) shows that, after anti-union laws pass, unions become starved for resources and then dial back their political spending, direct fewer volunteers to election campaigns, and turn out fewer working-class voters. The study found a three to four percentage point bump in Republican vote shares, up and down the ballot, after these anti-union laws go into effect.
Crack-downs on unions are, thus, part and parcel of the Republican "power-grab" playbook, together with making it harder for certain people to vote, rolling back the power of democratically-elected governors, aggressive gerrymandering, stacking state and federal courts, allowing unlimited dark money in our elections, and more.
This week, Democrats decided to push back on that playbook. The PRO Act is one of several reforms - together with ethics and campaign finance reforms, ending voter suppression, granting D.C. statehood, and more - that will be needed to clean up our government and make it more responsive to all Americans.
No institution is perfect, but the fact remains that labor unions are one of the few tools we have for organizing vast numbers of relatively less-powerful people and channeling their numbers into power and voice in our democracy. Mitch McConnell may never give a vote to the PRO Act in the Senate, but Democrats in the House have set down a marker - that they are not going to let Republicans continue to rig our economy and our democracy.
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and the author of "State Capture: How Big Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States - and the Nation." Aaron Goldzimer is a philanthropic and political-donor advisor with expertise in U.S. politics and democracy. He previously was senior fellow for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Treasury at the end of the Obama administration.