The rate of union membership among workers in the United States has been in steady decline since its peak in the 1950s. Several factors have contributed to this decrease, including the staunchly anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and more than half of states, including Nebraska, passing “right-to-work” laws, which prevent workers from being required to join unions. 

Hoping to reverse this decades-long trend, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, also known as the PRO Act, on March 9. This bill, if signed into law, would strengthen workers’ ability to unionize their workplace. 

“The decades-long assault on workers’ rights – led by special interests in state legislatures, courts, and employers across the country – has suppressed union membership and eroded America’s middle class,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., after introducing the PRO Act. (Photo courtesy Congress.gov)

The PRO Act was first introduced by Bobby Scott (D-Va.) in 2019 and passed in the House in early 2020, but the Republican-controlled Senate at the time did not put the bill up to a vote. 

Rep. Scott submitted the legislation again in February of this year, and the bill passed in the House 225-206. The vote was largely along party lines, with only five Republicans voting in favor and one Democrat opposing. 

The PRO Act uses a number of approaches to strengthen labor laws in the U.S., including expanding the definition of “employee” to include independent contractors, allowing them to join unions. This means that workers for companies like Uber and DoorDash would be allowed to organize and collectively bargain. 

Another way that labor laws would be strengthened is doing away with “right-to-work” laws, allowing bargaining agreements to require paid dues from all workers represented by a union. The bill also prohibits anti-union activities by employers, such as retaliation for organizing. Additionally, the PRO Act gives the National Labor Relations Board authority to fine employers who don’t comply with fair labor practices. 

If the PRO Act is signed into law, it could have a major impact on Nebraska’s “right-to-work” statutes, which are encoded in the state constitution. 

Businesses in Nebraska are prohibited from entering a contract that excludes anyone from employment based on union membership or refusal to pay dues, and noncompliance is a misdemeanor offense, resulting in fines ranging from $100 to $500. 

Nebraska is currently ranked 24th in the nation for union membership, with 10.5% of workers represented by unions, which is below the national average of 12.1%. The PRO Act could have a significant impact on the ability of Nebraska workers to unionize if signed into law, possibly helping the state get closer to the national average. 

The Nebraska Department of Labor declined to comment for this story.

The PRO Act is not only supported by major labor organizations, such as the AFL-CIO, which says it is the “most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression,” but President Joe Biden has also voiced his support. 

“I believe every worker deserves a free and fair choice to join a union — and the PRO Act will bring us closer to that reality,” Biden tweeted from the POTUS Twitter account.  “I urge Congress to send it to my desk so we can summon a new wave of worker power and create an economy that works for everyone.”

Now that the PRO Act has passed in the House, it goes to the Senate, but its chances of passing there are slim without filibuster reform. Under current Senate rules, the legislation would need support from 60 senators. However, with Republicans adamantly opposed to the bill, it is unlikely to land on the president’s desk. 

Strengthening unions and labor laws was a major component of Biden’s platform as a candidate. If the PRO Act fails in the Senate, it would be seen as a significant setback for his legislative agenda. 

contact the writer at news@thereader.com


Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to thereader.com and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

Leave a comment