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Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act

Why the PRO Act Is Part of a Green New Deal

By Dharna Noor - Gizmodo, March 10, 2021

On Tuesday night, the U.S. House passed an essential piece of climate policy. But the legislation makes no mention of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, or extreme weather. Instead, it’s all about labor protections.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021, known as the PRO Act, is the most comprehensive piece of labor legislation the U.S. has seen in decades. It would make it easier for workers to organize and could move us a step closer to ensure the future clean energy economy is one that works for everyone.

“When we push for a Green New Deal, we’re pushing for a reimagining and a redesign of the economy overall with a focus on care jobs which do not contribute to our carbon footprint and jobs that are not a part of the fossil fuel industry,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman said just hours after delivering an impassioned speech in support of the bill on the House floor. “We’re talking about millions of union jobs where workers are earning a family-sustaining wage and they have a right to organize and unionize without being threatened or bullied or intimidated by employers…so this is a huge step.”

Among the PRO Act’s provisions are fines for managers who retaliate against workers who organize and requirements for employers to bargain their workers’ first union contracts in good faith. It would also effectively end so-called right-to-work laws in the nearly 30 states that have passed them and stop employers from permanently replacing workers who go on strike.

All told, the bill would make it much easier for American workers to unionize and bargain for protections. A more organized workforce means workers will have better benefits on the job and more protection when they leave a position. That would be great news for the fight for a livable planet, because it would secure crucial rights for those leaving jobs in the waning fossil fuel industry and for those in the new clean economy, too. Boosting union density could bring many new people into the fold to push for that just transition. Joining unions could also help workers in job training programs or green industries to advocate for themselves.

This Is What the Beginning of a Climate-Labor Alliance Looks Like: The PRO Act is emerging as the left’s answer to a classic political tension

By Kate Aronoff - New Republic, March 10, 2021

Tuesday night, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act passed the House by 225–205 votes. If it passes the Senate and becomes law, it will peel back over half a century of anti-union policies, including core provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. It would override state-level right-to-work protections—the darlings of the Koch brothers machine—and create harsher penalties for employers who interfere with employees’ organizing efforts. But in myriad ways, the act might also do something unexpected: set the stage for sweeping climate policy.

A coalition led by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, or IUPAT, and the Communication Workers of America is mobilizing to push the PRO Act over the finish line in the Senate. The youth climate group Sunrise Movement was an early recruit, and the Democratic Socialists of America—including its ecosocialist working group, which is also pushing for a Green New Deal—will be deploying its members in key districts around the country to ensure it’s passed. After a kick-off call over the weekend featuring Congressman Jamaal Bowman, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA head Sara Nelson, and Naomi Klein, DSA is holding trainings for its members throughout March as well as events around the country pushing key senators to back the bill in the lead-up to May Day. Sunrise last week launched a Good Jobs for All campaign, which is urging on a federal job guarantee introduced recently by Representative Ayanna Pressley. Over the next several weeks, Sunrise hubs will be working alongside progressive legislators and holding in-district protests to advance five priorities for upcoming infrastructure legislation, including the PRO Act. After its passage through the House last night, a press release from the groups praised the measure as a “core pillar of the Green New Deal.”

The alliances forming around the PRO Act buck long-held wisdom in Washington about what it would take to get labor unions and environmentalists to work together. James Williams Jr., IUPAT’s vice president at large, has been frustrated by years of seeing the two talk past one another. Construction unions, in particular, have come to loggerheads with climate hawks over infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. “I would blame labor a lot of the time for this,” he says, “but there have to be deeper conversations about the fact that labor is going to lose jobs that have been really good jobs for a really long time.” 

Right to Work on a Hot Planet

By Kate Aronoff - New Republic, January 25, 2021

By 1961, Charles Koch had stacked up three engineering degrees and was back home in Wichita, Kansas, to join the family business of oil refining, pipelines, and manufacturing. His father, Fred, was at the time attempting to tackle a different sort of engineering challenge: how to get unions, Communists, and big government off his back. The Nazi sympathizer Koch patriarch fought against unions in Kansas, and when the John Birch Society convened its inaugural meeting in 1958—initially composed exclusively of National Association of Manufacturers members—he enthusiastically attended as a co-founder. According to a 1961 Washington Post profile of Koch’s white supremacist conspiracy-theory club, “leadership of the Birch Society overlaps heavily with the leadership of the organizations that successfully campaigned in 1958 for a right to work amendment to the State’s Constitution.” Fred died in 1967, but Charles eagerly put his education to work carrying on his family’s 60-year war against collective bargaining rights and that pesky concept known as representative democracy. When it comes to right to work, especially, labor and climate campaigners quite literally share a common enemy. 

If those two groups have found it difficult to join forces, their adversaries are elegantly streamlined. During the Obama administration, Koch Industries trained its fossil fuel empire on the twin goals of turning legislatures red and pushing through deceptively named right-to-work statutes, all the while finding time to help kill federal climate legislation. Though no state had enacted right-to-work rules since Oklahoma in 2001, five have taken them up since 2012. This most recent push has focused on sapping public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights, in particular, like the bill that led thousands of union members to peacefully occupy Wisconsin’s capitol dome in 2011. 

That some of the most high-profile targets of anti-labor measures have been swing states with strong union legacies—namely, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan—is no coincidence. As E.J. Dionne pointed out after Michigan enacted its right-to-work measures in 2013, Obama had won 66 percent of the state’s union households a year earlier. He won the state overall by just 1 percent. In 2018, the right’s biggest win against unions came with the decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which made right to work the national standard for public-sector workers. The crux of that case was AFSCME member Mark Janus’s argument—in a case supported enthusiastically by Koch networks—that being forced to pay agency fees—which cover the costs of union representation and contract negotiation—violated his free speech. This was a major blow to unions’ capacity to extract gains from employers, weakening labor’s power overall. That’s the whole point.

For Charles Koch and other captains of industry, the calculation behind crushing unions isn’t complicated: Weaker unions mean a weaker opposition to right-wing policies, including the sort of regressive climate and energy measures they’ve helped push around the country through the American Legislative Exchange Council. The right’s general project of minority rule—whether in weakening small-d democratic institutions like unions, gerrymandering congressional districts, or suppressing votes—is incompatible with climate action and democracy itself. Big business has long understood this. 

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