At a May 8 hearing on Capitol Hill, Congressman and IBEW member Donald Norcross cited his decades as an electrician and union representative in support of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act,
which would allow workers to organize and bargain collectively, free of employer interference and stalling tactics. Violators would face more costly penalties than under current law.

Pro-union lawmakers are pushing for landmark federal legislation that would pull the teeth of right-to-work laws and impose stronger, swifter penalties on law-breaking employers, ensuring that workers across the country have the right to join unions and bargain collectively for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

Jim Staus, a worker illegally fired for union activism during an organizing drive at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, testifies about his ordeal and ongoing fight as UPMC continues to defy NLRB orders to rehire him and his fired coworkers and pay their lost wages.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, to amend and strengthen the National Labor Relations Act, was unveiled May 2 by a coalition of 40 Democrats in the U.S. Senate and 100 in the House, including Folsom, N.J., Local 351 member and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross.

“For 37 years I was an electrician and a union representative,” Norcross said during a hearing on the bill Wednesday in the House Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) subcommittee. “I’ll start out by saying not every employer is a bad employer. But when we have the bad ones, they can abuse this system to the nth degree, literally crushing people like you.”

Norcross was referring to wrenching testimony from Jim Staus, who joined with coworkers in 2012 to organize a union at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a global health care behemoth worth $19 billion.

Staus was being paid $9.60 an hour doing backbreaking work as a supply technician without proper safety equipment for heavy lifting. Management launched a brutal campaign of harassment and intimidation against union supporters, ultimately firing Staus and others. The National Labor Relations Board has twice ordered UPMC to reinstate the workers with back pay, to no avail. The case is pending in federal court.

“My fight for a better life as part of a union has cost my family and me dearly,” Staus testified. “If the PRO Act were law, this wouldn’t have happened. The NLRB’s orders would be self- enforcing and UPMC could be required to reinstate me and others they illegally fired while our cases are pending. I would have immediately gotten back to work and received my full back pay.”

The PRO Act streamlines the process for NLRB elections to stop employers from interfering in organizing drives and delaying votes, prohibits management from forcing workers to attend anti-union captive-audience meetings, and requires companies to bargain in good faith, among its many proposals to protect and restore workers’ rights.

Even more significantly, it would hold law-breaking employers accountable to a degree that the NLRA’s current, limited remedies can’t.

“The Act’s inadequate remedies not only fail to deter or fully remedy violations, but in fact incentivize unlawful practices,” former NLRB Chair Mark Gaston Pearce testified Wednesday. “Because employers often calculate that noncompliance is less costly… it is economically rational for employers to violate the Act.”

In practice that means, “employers are commonly willing to flout the law by intimidating, coercing, and firing workers because they engage in protected concerted activity or attempt to organize a union,” Pearce said.

In addition to larger compensatory damages for illegally fired workers, the PRO Act would enable the NLRB in certain cases to hold a company’s individual board members or directors personally liable.

“This is life-changing legislation that would go a long way resetting the balance that is so heavily tilted in favor of employers,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. “It has the potential to give millions more American workers the kind of financial security and peace of mind that come from having a strong union contract, and we are grateful to have Brother Norcross fighting for it.”

But no one is naïve about the hurdles it faces, he said.

“In today’s Republican-controlled Senate, this kind of bill doesn’t stand a chance,” Stephenson said. “We know that. But we also know that we can and we must change that in November 2020. It says a lot that so many Democrats who are on the ballot next year are embracing the PRO Act, unafraid to take a bold stand for unions. We’ll remember that at the polls.”

Supporters of the PRO Act point to a 2018 Princeton University study going back to the 1930s, affirming that union-negotiated wages are consistently 10 to 20 percent higher than nonunion pay.

Workers widely understand that, along with other union benefits, the Economic Policy Institute said in analyzing the bill. “Research shows workers want unions. There is a huge gap between the share of workers with union representation (11.9 percent) and the share of workers that would like to have a union and a voice on the job (48 percent). The PRO Act would take a major step forward in closing that gap.”

Among specific provisions, the bill would:

  • Require mediation and, if needed, binding arbitration to reach a first contract.
  • Close loopholes in federal labor law that employers have used to misclassify workers as supervisors or independent contractors.
  • Bar employers from forcing workers to sign away their rights to class-action litigation, overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Epic Systems v. Lewis.
  • Give the NLRB power to enforce its own rulings, like other federal agencies, without waiting for court decisions.
  • Allow workers to go to court directly when employers violate their rights, instead of relying only on the NLRB general counsel for help.
  • Affirm the right of workers to support boycotts, strikes or other acts of solidarity through peaceful protests.

“The PRO Act is an important effort to bring U.S. labor law into the 21st century—giving working people more power at a time when it is desperately needed,” EPI said.