The PRO Act is back, and Senate leadership vows to push it / by Mark Gruenberg

WASHINGTON—Key lawmakers on worker rights’ issues—Senate Labor Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.—introduced the newest version of the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act on Feb. 28.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., vowed to push it on the Senate floor once Sanders’s committee finishes its hearings and work on the measure.

“Joining a union should be a right, not a fight,” said Scott, alluding to the roadblocks bosses erect against organizing drives, almost all of which the PRO Act would outlaw.

But even with one House Republican co-sponsor, Pennsylvanian Brian Fitzpatrick, and more than 200 Democrats signed on, it faces an uphill battle in that GOP-run chamber.

Notorious union hater Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., denounced it as written by “Big Labor.” She vowed “the demands of Union Bosses will stop” in her House Education and the Workforce Committee. Both phrases are Republican anti-worker staples. And speakers at the kickoff event warned of intense loathing, backed by money, from the corporate class.

That didn’t faze Scott, Sanders, Schumer, or AFL-CIO President Liz Schumer, who spoke at what was officially a press conference but sounded more like a pro-worker rally. Listening to the predicted reaction, Shuler stated, “It tells me they’re scared of us. They can’t stand a world where workers get a fair share of the profits” of their labor.

“The American people are sick and tired of unprecedented corporate greed and union-busting” added Sanders, whose committee, with a one-vote Democratic majority, is expected to approve the bill. “The average CEO makes 400 times what the average worker makes.” The PRO Act, he predicted, is the most-effective way to reduce that gap.

By contrast with the PRO Act, given today’s weak labor laws and corporate hate, “taking a risk” to unionize “is an act of courage,” explained Shuler. “It shouldn’t be.”

“But if you look at Starbucks, at Amazon, and at Tesla, what you see is threats and retaliation,” she said.

All of those would be illegal, hit with heavy fines—$50,000 for a first offense, $100,000 for subsequent offenses, plus awarding illegally fired workers full back pay plus expenses, and giving them their jobs back as soon as they get a favorable National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling.

Making organizing and unionizing easier is especially vital in so-called right-to-work states, such as Oklahoma, said Shuler. A Communications Worker from Oklahoma City told the press conference about bosses’ tactics and lies during an organizing drive at an Apple store there. This version of the PRO Act would repeal the 1947 Republican-engineered legal basis for right-to-work laws, the Taft-Hartley Act.

Many speakers described the benefits of unionization, not just for workers in terms of higher wages, better working conditions, safer workplaces, and voices on the job, but for the economy as a whole.

Citing her predecessor, the late AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka—whose name is attached to the PRO Act—Shuler said he “knew we could not build an equitable economy without changing the law.”

The legislation drew an enthusiastic reception from the crowd of Service Employees, Communications Workers, and United Food and Commercial Workers at a press conference turned rally. The Republicans, as Foxx’s statement shows, are another matter.

Besides overriding right-to-work laws and imposing higher fines, the new version of the PRO Act would mandate instant recognition and a quick start, within days, to bargaining when the union wins a National Labor Relations Board recognition election. Bosses who stall on reaching a first contract would be forced into mandatory mediation and arbitration.

It also says if the union turns in election cards from a verified majority of workers before the vote, but loses anyway after bosses’ anti-union campaigns, the cards control the outcome. And it outlaws a key weapon bosses use in economic strikes, hiring scabs.

Any illegally fired worker would have an immediate right to return to her job if the NLRB rules for her. And the new PRO Act would make it easier for the board to go to court for injunctions against law-breakers. If the board can’t or won’t, workers could sue for enforcement.

The measure would also make illegal the captive audience meetings bosses and their union busters now use to harangue workers. And it would let union recognition elections be off-site, by mail, or electronically, not just at the plant, office, or shop, where bosses can illegally spy.

Also outlawed: Bosses’ gerrymandering union elections—the Democrats’ words—by either challenging who could vote and/or stuffing the rolls with anti-union workers in advance.

The measure, HR20 in the House, also writes into law the NLRB’s definition of a “joint employer,” where both the headquarters and a local franchise-holder are responsible for obeying, or breaking, labor law. Bosses, supervisors, CEOs, and line managers would all be liable for the fines for labor law-breaking. So would so-called “persuaders,” a.k.a. union-busters.

And it curbs or bans dodges bosses use to throw people out of unions, such as misclassifying them as “independent contractors” or arbitrarily promoting workers to be “supervisors” but without hire-and-fire and other key responsibilities. It narrows who’s a supervisor, too.

Besides outlawing scabs, the new PRO Act restores the right to secondary boycotts. The GOP’s Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 outlawed that, too, while legalizing right to work. And the new bill overturns a recent Supreme Court GOP-majority ruling allowing bosses to force workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements which override even union contracts.

The video of the event is here:

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).

People’s World, March 2, 2023

Sunset of the AFL-CIO? / by Chris Townsend

AFL-CIO Headquarters, Washington, DC, 3014. Matt Popovich | Flickr

The 29th Constitutional Convention of the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 12, 2022 delayed by one year owing to pandemic conditions. There was little fanfare, and little advance publicity apparently. Even ordinarily sympathetic observers of AFL-CIO Conventions have been struck by the low profile and energy of the proceedings. Held only every 4 years the Federation Convention is the one minimally public event where union leaders, members, activists, and supporters of the labor movement might be able to look for leadership on the dizzying array of issues facing working people. 

In recent decades as the labor movement has been assaulted from all sides less and less public and media attention is seemingly paid to this otherwise critical council of the leadership of such a primary section of the organized working class. By comparison, the twice-as-large Labor Notes conference convened in Chicago just a week after the AFL-CIO Convention, and it offered a dramatically different and far more energetic approach to solving labor’s crises and problems.

The AFL-CIO is comprised of 57 industrial and craft unions, claiming a combined total of 12.5 million U.S. members. When those only nominally associated with their unions are subtracted – primarily retirees and political campaign enrollees – actual Federation membership is significantly less. And in addition to this membership, more than 7 million workers belong to unions not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.  The stark facts today would be that the unionized section of the U.S. working class remains numerically small, embattled, isolated, and encircled by hostile employers and governments. Activity levels among union members at the workplaces has declined as a result. The total unionized slice of the workforce has also been steadily shrinking as a proportion of the entire workforce for the past 70 years, now well less than 10%. 

While positive anecdotes are always to be found in abundance where unions and workers fight back or try to advance, the overall condition of the labor movement given this imbalance of forces is precarious at best. For my entire working life as a union member – more than 40 years – the situation has been steadily deteriorating as both employers and governments systematically attack the remaining organized union garrisons in the industries. Our growth in new sections of the economy has been virtually stopped, as the employers have adopted an all-out union smashing strategy to prevent the unions from regenerating. The new industries have been nearly impossible to organize, so the unions continue to suffer major losses in established bases that they are unable to replace.

Convention Die Cast on Day One

Given the dire situation we now face as a labor movement one might have imagined a Federation Convention dedicated to intense study and debate regarding our situation. Or, we might have imagined a vigorous pre-Convention process where the disastrous situation we confront would have been dissected in a search for solutions by the leadership. Very little of this apparently happened, however. The Philadelphia Convention opened without the presence of the well-known and outsized figure of Richard Trumka, who died suddenly in August of 2021 after more than 25 years as first the Secretary-Treasurer, then the President of the Federation. Trumka had announced his intention to retire at the Philadelphia Convention, and his sudden death opened-up the possibility of an actual election contest for the leadership spot. 

Trumka’s hand-picked successor was AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, the preferred shoo-in of the conservative elements in the various affiliate unions. Progressive forces scattered in the unions had promoted a possible candidacy by airline Flight Attendants (AFA) union President Sara Nelson, but resistance from the old regime’s supporters and a front-loaded leadership election on day one of the Convention ended any such thought of a challenge. Shuler was elected without debate or discussion. The small progressive forces in the various union leaderships – and the even smaller left elements – were unable to crystallize the needed support for Nelson that might have forced an election challenge and a wide-ranging debate of the many crises faced. The hurried Shuler election on day one ended any hopes for discussion, debate, or any meaningful appraisal of the state of things facing the unions at the Philadelphia meeting.

More Decay and Drift Ahead

With no leadership challenge or debate having materialized, the Convention proceeded to move through its customary standard agenda on a predictable course. The multiple disasters facing the labor federation were at times mentioned, but little urgent action was proposed. Scripted speeches, stage-managed presentations, visiting VIP guests from the Democratic Party – notably President Joe Biden – spoke to the assemblage, and an array of video clips were shown to try to inject enthusiasm into the audience. A trade show theme permeated the Convention as job training, “wellness”, and other HR functions were offered as substitutes for traditional trade union responses. 

Some ongoing struggles and organizing successes were thankfully showcased, although the leaders of the three largest successful NLRB union election campaigns in the past 3 months – Amazon, Starbucks, and MIT – were all barely noted. Ironically, the three unions responsible for those wins – the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), Workers United (SEIU), and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) – are not affiliates of the AFL-CIO. These unprecedented and successful uprisings of more than 15,000 unorganized workers in previously untouchable anti-union employer fortresses were little noted in the AFL-CIO proceedings.

During the week a variety of other public decisions were made; Fred Redmond from the Steelworkers Union was elected Secretary-Treasurer; the Executive Vice President slot was eliminated by being merged apparently with the Secretary-Treasurer position; a new Executive Council of affiliate union leaders was elected without any challenges or debate; and at the very end of the Convention it was announced that a new organizing initiative would be launched presumably to address the stagnant and sinking membership levels. No details or timelines were announced as to how or when this would be done. So ended the Convention of AFL-CIO, the all-too-rare meeting of the leaders and general staffs of the unions comprising the U.S. labor federation. My now departed and dear friend Harry Kelber – a tireless advocate for an improved democratic and deliberative process at AFL-CIO Conventions – would have been dumbstruck at the proceedings, what they covered, and what they did not cover. 

Crises Will Deepen and Worsen

A “steady as she goes” approach has been the preferred course by the labor leadership for decades. It has proven to be a reliable path to a “rule or ruin” legacy where the singular goal of maintaining complete control crowds out all other considerations. Such is sadly the state in many of the affiliate unions as well. Ignoring problems and crises, delaying real discussion of new and urgently needed solutions, praying child-like for a miracle to save the “the middle class”, hiring outside advertising firms to explore new “messaging” schemes, continued habituation to decline and decay, an unwillingness to question the political strait-jacket of the Federation, substituting non-profits and NGO’s for the development of real trade union capacity, and even overt submissive gestures to enemy political forces and corporations in the vain search for allies have all been standard responses over the decades. Given this historically failed and sterile process no other outcome other than continued decline is to be expected. The Philadelphia Convention has ended, the delegates have drawn their breath and drawn their pay, and that’s that.

Progressives and Militants Demobilized and Scattered

Defenders and apologists of the status-quo alike have always pointed out one fact that is not in question here, which is to correctly observe that “The AFL-CIO is only a sum of its parts.” Meaning, that the Federation itself is merely a reflection of the character of the unions and the union leadership that comprise the leadership of the affiliate unions. Today’s situation within the labor center reflects accurately an overall business union malaise deeply infecting the labor movement. The current untenable and dangerous situation will not correct itself, either. The highly paid leaders of the bulk of the affiliate unions – and their networks of appointees and paid staff completely beholden to them – are customarily insulated and protected from virtually all political challenges in their own unions. 

The progressive and left elements in the unions do exist, but they are precariously scattered and unable or unwilling to bring forward demands for such basic initiatives as the need for internal democratization of the unions, for aggressive bargaining campaigns before the current economic conditions deteriorate, for mass campaigns of new organization, or advocacy towards a new and improved political action program. Some of the more activist and progressive forces within the affiliate unions did emerge as part of the network which pushed for a candidacy by Sara Nelson from the Flight Attendants, but in the end the network was too small, too isolated, opposed by too many, undermined, and unable to pull together a campaign to confront the old guard as personified by Shuler.     

Need for Real Work in the Unions

Over the past 30 years there have been 3 distinct union leadership groupings that have collected around demands that the labor Federation deal more realistically with its problems, deal more decisively with them, organize the unorganized on a wider scale, and exert some degree of independence from the Democratic Party. The union coalition that barely unseated the reactionary Lane Kirkland regime in 1995; the dozen unions that coalesced around the Labor Party movement in the 1990’s, and the unions that came together and ultimately split from the AFL-CIO to form the now moribund rival Change to Win federation in the 2,000’s. Progressives and militants played leading roles in all three efforts, although all three were unable to permanently establish themselves as sustained left alternatives to the ossified status quo.  

In the wake of the failure of these three initiatives – so far as their goal of reinvigorating the overall labor federation – the left forces have dissipated and declined. The Bernie Sanders campaign rejuvenated some of these forces during his bid for the White House but have since scattered again in the wake of the Biden victory. With no pressure being brought to bear from the left, the entrenched conservatives in control of the Federation are unlikely to act on very much coming in the wake of the Convention, as history will attest. And on top of everything else, the apparent impending November election debacle facing the Democratic Party – and the likely return to power of an increasingly reactionary and anti-labor Republican Party – should be cause for alarm. With a Republican Party set to continue and expand its program of liquidating the trade unions one might have imagined the Federation willing to confront at least this singular issue as an emergency, but no such program seems in evidence. 

The situation in many of the affiliates is even more dire, as internal union polls regularly indicate that large swaths of union membership support Trumpism and its variants at the ballot box and in general. With the Federation unwilling to take on and lead the needed – and necessarily controversial political work of exposing the Right’s agenda – the affiliate unions are unlikely to go it alone and risk angering large sections of their memberships. Union after union refuses to engage their memberships in any meaningful trade union political education, instead abandoning this most urgent of tasks. 

Labor Notes Conference Eclipses AFL Confab

One very bright sign on the horizon besides the youth-led organizing upsets at Amazon, Starbucks, and MIT is the biennial Labor Notes conference which convened in Chicago just days after the AFL-CIO Convention. Run on a shoestring, more than 4,000 unionists gathered at the Labor Notes conference, twice as many as the all-expenses-paid attendance at the AFL confab. The evolving Labor Notes movement took root more than 40 years ago on the left fringes of the labor movement and today has grown to eclipse even the Federation itself in terms of the loyalty shown it by the activist elements across all unions and sectors. 

The emerging younger, progressive, and more militant forces in some of the new organizing movements – as best illustrated by the Amazon, Starbucks, and MIT election wins – run counter to the AFL-CIO drift and decay. In some ways it offers parallels to the divide between new and old generations in the early years of the Committee for Industrial Organization, the predecessor of the eventual Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The recent Labor Notes conference featured addresses by Flight Attendants Union president Sara Nelson, Senator Bernie Sanders, and new Teamster President Sean O’Brien. In addition, union leaders and activists conducted workshops too numerous to count as virtually every aspect of labor’s crisis was debated and examined in the search for some way forward. The meeting stands out for its authentic energy and character, its decentralized structure, and its decidedly left political and militant union bent. Labor Notes has clearly carved-out and earned for itself the left pole of the labor movement and commands wide loyalty among the ranks. All signs point to a continued growth of this left flank. 

William Z. Foster

As far back as 1925 William Z. Foster warned that, “To bring the millions into the unions is necessary not only for the protection of the unorganized workers, and to further class ends in general, but also to safeguard the life of the existing organizations.” Foster implored the progressives, the militants, and left forces within the unions to push, and push harder towards a goal of forcing the established bureaucracies in the labor movement to respond to the crisis as he saw them 100 years ago.  That same counsel describes our collective dilemma today, with both the Federation and scores of union affiliates stumbling towards disaster and forfeiting the momentary improved conditions for aggressive trade union bargaining, strike action, and certainly for the initiation of mass campaigns to organize the many millions of unorganized workers. 

Foster in his era was faced with many of the same business union pathologies as we face today regarding the need to revitalize the labor movement, and all serious participants in the current labor movement are well advised to acquaint themselves with his legacy. Foster correctly observed that, within the labor movement leadership, “The left wing militantly leads, the progressives mildly support, and the right wing opposes…The left wing alone has a realization of the tremendous social significance of the organization of the unorganized…” It should be noted that just 10 years after Foster’s admonition in the trade union low ebb of the Roaring Twenties to organize the unorganized the CIO was born; and just 16 years after the loss of the Great Steel Strike the mass strike waves that established the CIO were spreading like wildfire. 

Things that look impossible today will be possible again, but not unless the left labor forces come together, build their numbers and reach, unify around a basic program of trade union revitalization, and work to compel the union leaderships to carry out the missions of the trade unions – and put an end to the disastrous AFL-CIO and affiliate union wandering in the wilderness. This work in the individual unions is urgent and critical if any progress is to be made at that level, and certainly no future progress will be possible at the Federation level absent these forces. 

For those seeking Foster’s interpretation of the AFL shortcomings in his time frame see, “American Trade Unionism”, a collection of Foster’s writing spanning his career as a labor organizer.  The book is published by International


Chris Townsend was the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing and Field Mobilization Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) He has been active in the labor movement for more than 40 years as a member, local organizer, local elected officer, and national and international staff member.

ML Today, June 24, 2022,