On a late-October morning, Jobs With Justice, alongside partners in the labor movement, and elected officials gathered on the steps of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters overlooking the U.S. Capitol. We were there to call on Congress to pass the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and bring much-needed updates to our woefully outdated federal labor laws.
As workers and supporters dressed in costumes, the Halloween setting provided the spooky backdrop that working without the protections offered in the PRO Act is often scary and can be a horror show. Without the PRO Act, workers face the fear of retaliation or termination when they call on their employers to address health and safety issues in the workplace or want to form a union to better negotiate over wages, benefits, and what’s possible on the job.The PRO Act would change that for millions of workers across the country.
The morning’s event was chock full of potent speakers as Jobs With Justice Executive Director Erica Smiley was joined by Teamsters General President James R. Hoffa, Jr., Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ), National Women’s Law Center Senior Counsel Sarah Heydemann, and activists from One Fair Wage.
Every speech roused the crowd gathered in front of the Teamsters’ steps, with impassioned words aimed at the U.S. Senate, encouraging the body to pass the PRO Act.
Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) opened the event and hammered home how the PRO Act can assist with the need for increased economic democracy and healthier, safer workplaces.
“This pandemic has made it crystal clear that this economy is not working for everyone,” said Sen. Murray. “It’s benefitting the wealthiest people and the biggest corporations. It is failing our workers. Workers’ pay suffers without strong protections to make sure everyone has a voice in the workplace.”
Addressing workers who fear retaliation and punishment for reporting violence or safety issues at work, Sen. Murray added, “Workplace safety and health violations go unreported for fear of retaliation. Sexual harassment continues with consequences, especially for workers who rely on tips for wages.”
Further addressing the health and safety impacts unions can have for working women, National Women’s Law Center Senior Counsel Sarah Heydemann added, “We know what the PRO Act would do—it would provide the freedom for workers to organize unions in their workplaces without fear of retaliation and unions can literally be the line between life and death on-the-job. “Workers in unionized nursing homes saw 30 percent fewer deaths in the pandemic compared to non-union nursing homes,” said Heydemann. “Unions make women workers safer.”
Jobs With Justice Executive Director Erica Smiley opened her remarks with a sobering reminder of the challenges workers face today with our outdated labor laws. “[T]oday we gather on the Teamsters’ steps because for far too many, the dreams unions make possible are increasingly out of reach,” said Smiley. “Thanks to outdated labor laws, this dream has never been a reality for millions in this country—especially for Black, brown, immigrant, women, and queer workers. Millions of workers are not allowed to organize and have a lack of voice on the job. They can’t form or join a union. We all deserve to work without fear.”
Smiley connected the need for democracy in our country to democracy at work—economic democracy. “The PRO Act will give us the tools we need to go to work without fear of employer threats and retaliation, said Smiley. “It will strengthen the National Labor Relations Board, increase fines and penalties for employers that engage in retaliation, and make it much harder for bosses to fire us simply for asking for more. It will empower us to use our voices at work, to call out bad behavior when we see it, and to get a seat at the bargaining table. It will allow us to finally go to work without fear. Democracy isn’t only about mobilizing the majority to make decisions on election day. It is also anchored in the ability to organize the majority of people in our economy to have a voice at work and throughout their economic lives. The PRO Act is another step in strengthening our democracy.”
Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa also addressed the challenges workers face without the PRO Act and made it clear when he said, “[The PRO Act] is a great bill whose time has come. If you want to end income inequality in America, turn unions loose.”
The PRO Act empowers workers and finally provides the tools they so desperately need to address the myriad problems they face at work.
Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ) arrived after just finishing a critical meeting with President Biden to hammer out the details of the Build Back Better legislation, which includes key provisions of the PRO Act, including financial penalties for employers who interfere in workers’ freedom to organize.
Rep. Norcross, an electrician and 40-year member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, knows full well the power workers have when they’re in a union.
“We work hard, we put our lives on the line, and [the bosses] get all the benefit,” said Rep. Norcross. “It’s supposed to be fairly distributed.”
“[It] all starts with a voice in the workplace, and that’s what the PRO Act is about,” Rep. Norcross continued. “[It] level[s] the playing field.”
The speeches were part of a multifaceted action that stretched far beyond the steps of the Teamsters. Jobs With Justice Creative Content Producer MacKenzie River Foy compiled a lengthy series of worker stories into a powerful video presentation displayed on a billboard truck. Replete with Halloween-themed music and visuals, the billboard truck drove the streets of Washington, D.C., sharing these worker stories with all those who were willing to listen.
Viewers of the video were encouraged to sign a petition calling on the Senate to pass the PRO Act and finally give working people the protections they deserve. When we published this update, more than 2100 people signed the petition, adding their voices to the chorus calling on our elected officials to do their jobs.
The day’s events culminated a fifteen-week-long campaign to urge the U.S. Senate to pass the PRO Act after it long passed the House of Representatives. Each week, Jobs With Justice shared moving and sometimes disturbing worker stories with senate offices. In video testimonials, workers revealed how the lack of strong labor laws hampered them when they sought to address workplace abuse and violence, wage theft, or attempted to organize their coworkers. The PRO Act would remedy that for the workers in the videos and untold millions who continue to work under dire conditions and weak laws favoring bosses and corporations. We now enter a new phase of our campaign. Yes, some provisions in the PRO Act may pass through reconciliation, but there’s more to be done. Workers need the entirety of the PRO Act, and they need it now. Let’s get to work and finish the job—let’s pass the PRO Act.