WASHINGTON—Passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is labor’s top political priority for 2021, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Jan. 12 at a telephone press conference announcing the federation’s “Workers First Agenda.”
The PRO Act, primarily intended to expand workers’ ability to organize into unions, would repeal “right to work for less” laws that ban the union shop; expand the right to strike; prevent employers from interfering in union elections; and limit practices such as defining workers as “independent contractors” that deny them the right to organize and other basic employee rights and protections. From increased unionization, Trumka extrapolated, would flow higher wages, safer workplaces, better health care and retirement, and less discrimination.
“The PRO Act is more than labor-law reform legislation,” he said. “It’s an economic-stimulus bill. It’s a civil-rights package.”
The bill passed the House last year, but was blocked in the Senate by then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Trumka said the AFL-CIO would build on its majority support in the House, Senate, White House, and among the American people, and counter a probable filibuster by Senate Republicans with a “typical organizing drive.”
He also emphasized the AFL-CIO general board’s call for Donald Trump to be impeached after last week’s attack on the Capitol.
“He incited this insurrection. He pushed judges and lawmakers to overturn democratic election results,” Trumka declared. “There was no voter fraud—we all know that. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz know that. Even Trump knows that. Trump is outraged because Black and Brown Americans voted, and their votes counted.”
However, he added, impeachment proceedings “cannot be allowed to delay or distract critical economic relief.”
Other items on the federation’s agenda include workplace safety, infrastructure, racial justice, undoing the damage Trump administration did to labor regulations, and expanding the social safety net.
“Worker safety is how we begin to beat the virus,” Trumka said. “We will never get this pandemic under control if we cannot protect working people.”
Those antiviral measures would include emergency federal standards for COVID-19, free vaccines and rapid testing, ensuring adequate personal protective equipment, and paid sick leave and family leave.
On infrastructure, the federation is advocating the Moving Forward Act, passed by the House but not the Senate last year. The $1.5 trillion measure—“trillions, with a T”—aims to “reduce the climate-change impacts of the surface transportation system.” It would provide $100 billion in aid for public transportation, including grants for zero-emissions buses, and fund repairing roads and bridges.
Environmental initiatives, Trumka cautioned, should be sensitive to communities that would likely lose jobs, such as coal-mining towns in Appalachia. “We have to bring everybody along with us,” he said. “You can’t just jettison people.”
You can’t just tell laid-off miners to learn computer programming, he noted—there aren’t any programming jobs in Appalachia, and people are attached to their home region.
“Any hope for recovery is impossible without equity,” he continued. In order to root out systemic racism, he urged, the President should appoint a “racial equity czar” to coordinate actions by agencies and keep people thinking about the issue.
The incoming administration also needs to “rebuild the safety net,” Trumka said. That would include rescuing multiemployer pension funds, reforming the unemployment-insurance system, strengthening the Affordable Care Act, reducing drug process, and lowering the age for Medicare from 65 to 50. Those measures would help everyone, but would have a disproportionate effect on people of color, as black people get less health care than whites, he added.
“It’s time to go big. Working people expect nothing less,” Trumka said.
Those measures fall short of the full-scale universal coverage promised by Medicare for All proposals. The AFL-CIO endorsed the idea of a single-payer health-care system as an ultimate goal in 2017, but said any such system should “not diminish the hard-fought benefits union members have won for themselves and all working people,” such as by the ACA’s never-enforced tax on workplace health-insurance plans that are costly because they provide comprehensive coverage with minimal deductibles or copayments.
“If it brings health care to everyone, we would like to see it,” Trumka said.
Even if the Biden administration can’t get much of this agenda through the Senate, he said, the Labor Department could do a lot administratively, such as barring companies with labor-law violations from federal contracts and raising the minimum wage for workers on those projects. It could also undo many of the Trump administration’s anti-labor rule changes, such as its reversal of Obama-era standards for when a company is a “joint employer” and when workers are independent contractors, and its expanding when investment advisers for retirees are exempt from conflict-of-interest standards.