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The Nationwide Right to Organize Act: Explained

Social Justice Policy Brief #141 | By: Emily Scanlon | October 10, 2022

Header photo taken from: Getty Images

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Union leaders say the Protecting the Right to Organize Act — PRO Act — would finally begin to level a playing field they say is unfairly tilted toward big business and management, making union organizing drives and elections unreasonably difficult. The bill passed last year and now a national effort is underway.

Photo taken from: Samuel Corum / Getty Images

What is the Nationwide Right to Unionize Act?

On September 8th, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA-30) reintroduced the Nationwide Right to Unionize Act. Labor unions are organizations formed by workers who join together and use their strength to have a voice in their workplace. The bill would support the right to unionize in the workplace by overturning so-called “right-to-work” laws. As labor unions grow in size and popularity, this bill would increase the strength of labor unions and give power back to the American worker.

What problems would the Nationwide Right to Unionize Act solve?

In the aftermath of a major wave of strikes in 1945 and 1946, Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. President Harry Truman attempted to veto the bill, but many Democrats crossed party lines to override the veto. The Taft-Hartley Act limited the strength of unions by banning several union practices. One of these practices was what’s known as “union shops,” which are places of employment which require all employees to be part of the union. Because union shops were made illegal, states were given the authority to enact “right-to-work” laws. Right-to-work laws allow a person to get or keep a job regardless of if they join or pay the union.

Because of the Taft-Hartley Act, federal law already prevents discrimination based on union status. The difference between this and right-to-work laws is that these laws go one step further by requiring unions to represent non-union employees, regardless of how much money or time it costs the union. Essentially, they allow employees to enjoy the benefits of being in a labor union without paying their share of the cost of the union.

Today, 26 states have right-to-work laws. Employees in right-to-work states have yearly salaries that are, on average, $11,059 lower than states without these laws. This is a 17.1% decrease, even when adjusted for factors such as education level, job opportunities across the state, and the age of workers. These states also see a decrease in unionization rates by 5%.  

Finally, workers in states without right-to-work laws are more likely to receive health insurance and pensions than states with these laws—3.8 million and 2 million, respectively. These discrepancies in compensation are the reason why “right-to-work” laws have been known more informally as “right-to-work for less” laws. By passing the Nationwide Right to Unionize Act, people living in right-to-work states would see an increase in their wages, benefits, and quality of life over time.


Warren on legislaton to eliminate "right-to-work" laws: "Republicans and their corporate interest backers have imposed state laws with only one goal: destroy unions and discourage workers from organizing for higher wages, fair benefits, and safer working conditions."

Photo taken from: Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP

What would the proposal do?

The Nationwide Right to Unionize Act has one goal: end so-called “right-to-work” laws across all states. It would repeal Section 14(b) of the Taft Hartley Act and allow for private companies to make their own decisions on unionization. This would lead to less restrictions on unions, giving employees the power to bargain with employers on a more even playing field. It would tip the power scale between employers and employees. The interests of workers in the US and workers’ rights would be prioritized, resulting in better outcomes for all.

What are proponents and opponents saying?

While the Nationwide Right to Unionize Act itself is not gaining much attention, a previous bill proposed by Senator Warren, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, has been discussed at length. Additionally, the debate of “right-to-work” laws has been around for decades. Here is where proponents and opponents of each stand:

Opponents of right-to-work laws:

  • Balance power scales between employees and employers.
  • Prioritize the interests of workers.
  • Strengthen unions.
  • Raise wages and benefits.
  • Protect the First Amendment right to assemble.

Proponents of right-to-work laws:

  • Ironically, protect the First Amendment right to free speech.
  • Keep business costs down because of lower labor costs.
  • Grow employment rates.
    • It is important to note that this is an untrue assumption. Of 27 states that have adopted right-to-work laws, 23 states have failed to increase employment rates. In fact, states who have recently adopted these laws are actually seeing a reversal of previous expanding trends in employment. This means that right-to-work laws are not only unhelpful, in many states they are actively harmful to employment rates.

Chart taken from: Vox / Data for Progress

As for the popularity of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, support among American voters is much higher and more bipartisan than expected. The chart above, retrieved from Vox, shows that 40% of Republicans, 74% of Democrats, and 58% of Independents support the act. While these results still show the strongest support among Democrats, the trend among Republican voters is much more favorable than Republican legislators. Given the similarities between the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and the Nationwide Right to Unionize Act, we would except similar trends of popularity.

What is the bill’s future?

Senator Warren has introduced this bill before as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act in 2017, and again in 2020. Representative Sherman has introduced similar bills in the House every session since 2008. None have gone far in any of these attempts. 

However, in March of 2021, the Protecting the Right to Organize did pass in the House but failed in the Republican-controlled Senate. Today, the Nationwide Right to Unionize Act has 26 cosponsors in the House and 18 cosponsors in the Senate. In both chambers, it has been introduced in committee but has not made it out. For it to become law it must go through this process:

 

  1. Pass in the House Committee on Education and Labor.
  2. Pass in the House of Representatives with a simple majority of 218 votes.
  3. Pass in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
  4. Pass in the Senate with a simple majority of 51 votes.
  5. Be signed by President Biden.

With that being said, the bill as of now does not have a strong likelihood of passing. GovTrack, an independent website that tracks the status of legislation, estimates its likelihood of passing is around 30%. Despite its low chances of passing, this bill is continuing an important conversation about workers’ rights and unionization in the US today.

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