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Passing the PRO Act is a Public Health and Safety Issue

New York, NY – Passing the PRO Act [Protecting the Right to Organize Act], despite twice-advancing out of the House and “Union Guy” Joe Biden sitting in the Oval Office — faces a bleak future in the U.S. Senate where the filibuster looms large and power is split between Republicans and Democrats. 

Workers rally outside Sen. Chuck Schumer’s Manhattan offices back in May in support of the PRO Act.

It, nonetheless, remains the number one priority of unions across the country, as evidenced by the Dec. 6 launching of the “Pass The Pro Act Holiday Tour” outside Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s Phoenix’s offices. 

The Communication Workers of America [CWA], Service Employees International Union [SEIU], United Autoworkers [UAW] and other national unions and progressive organizations hope to light a PRO Act fire underneath senators in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Texas before wrapping up on Dec. 17 outside the New York City offices of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. 

The coalition might have more success garnering the support necessary to push the PRO Act through the Senate — either as part of the Build Back Better Act or on its own — if they present it in a different light. As recent findings demonstrate, the Pro Act should really be viewed as a public health and safety issue.

Take the construction industry, for instance. Construction sites across the country are incredibly dangerous places to earn a living. Too often, workers fully expecting to go home at the end of the day are instead struck in the head with falling debris, crushed between heavy pieces of machinery, buried in collapsing trenches or sent plummeting 10-stories or more to their deaths.

Union job sites, however, are safer than nonunion job sites. According to a newly-released survey of 37,000 Occupational Health and Safety Administration [OSHA] inspections conducted in 2019, union job sites are a lot safer — nearly 20% less likely to have health and safety violations and an average of 34% fewer violations per inspection.

Trade unionists represent just 14% of the total U.S. construction industry workforce. But in the year the Illinois Economic Policy Institute [ILEPI] and the Project for Middle Class Renewal [PMCR] at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted their joint analysis of OSHA onsite inspections, union job sites constituted just 5% of the total safety violations found. The rest belonged to nonunion building projects.

In 2019, union worksites in the state of Illinois accounted for just 8% of all OSHA violations even though unions represented 34% of the state’s construction workforce.

The ILEP and PMCR study further found that in nine states across the midwest — Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin — union construction workers were responsible for as much as 64% fewer health and safety violations than their nonunion counterparts.

And that’s just what it looks like when someone’s paying attention and counting. Construction worker deaths in New York City were on the rise in the three years prior to the outbreak of Covid-19. In 2019, the city that never sleeps saw the deaths of two dozen construction workers — the majority of them traditionally nonunion people of color.

But in May of 2015, then New York City Department of Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler told a City Council Committee on Housing and Buildings that his agency doesn’t even bother noting whether a job site is union or nonunion when investigating accidents.

“We don’t ask that question,” Chandler said. “I think if we were to go that route, there would be serious implications [on] the effectiveness of doing our job. You collect the information and then what?”

Local Law 78, introduced two years later, started to legally require the status of workers on job sites involved in accidents to be included in DOB investigations.

Just recently, the nation learned that last year, at least 20,000 nonunion Amazon employees tested positive for Covid-19. But the e-commerce behemoth only copped to 27 of those employees — moms, dads, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles — being infected at its jam-packed job sites.

To date, Covid-19 has killed more than 782,000 people across the United States. But Amazon warehouse workers — the majority of them low-income people of color — have been sounding the alarm about the unsafe working conditions inside Jeff Bezos’ vaunted “fulfillment centers” and other facilities across the country since the pandemic began.

In March, 2020, North Carolina Amazon worker Monica Moody told me that she and her co-workers were “freaked out” about what was going on inside the North Carolina Amazon warehouse where they worked.

“People are probably coming to work sick and not know it,” Moody said. “We all want the same thing — we need to see the facility shut down temporarily so it can be cleaned.”

This past February, Allegra Brown, an Amazon Fresh employee from New Jersey said, “My workplace at Amazon is full of Black and Brown people who are getting Covid and brining it home to their families all the time.”

Amazon remains virulently anti-union and is being forced to redo a union election at its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse after the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] — the federal agency tasked with enforcing worker rights — found the conglomerate broke the law and cheated workers out of a fair vote.

Despite all this, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel had the chutzpah to ridicule the NLRB’s order saying, “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees.”

Oh, Really?

Existing labor law makes mounting a successful unionization drive exceedingly difficult anywhere in the county — let alone inside in places where deep-pockets companies have virtual free rein to exploit hard-pressed people of color.

The Pro Act — or provisions thereof — could go a long way to changing all that. In addition to increasing union-busing penalties and increasing the NLRB’s budget, PRO Act provisions could help level the playing field by reinstitution card check elections — meaning a majority of workers could avoid all the captive audience meetings and plethora of other intimidation tactics anti-union companies use during long and protracted ballot elections — and organize simply by signing enough union cards expressing their will.

More than 1,600 people in the U. S. just died of Covid at the time of this writing. But profit driven businesses and their congressional courtiers remain steadfastly aligned against any real effort to properly safeguard the American workplace. If barriers to unionization aren’t removed, work will continue to be a very dangerous place to be.

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