Economy & Business

PRO? Con

President Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., February 5, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The Biden administration is committed to applying the freshest thinking of the 1930s to contemporary challenges, while congressional Democrats are keen on mandating that all 50 states adopt what is worst and most destructive in California practice. These two tendencies come together in the PRO Act.

The PRO Act, which already has been passed by the House, is being sold as a measure to make it easier for American workers to join labor unions. What it is, in fact, is a measure that would make it much harder for workers to stay out of unions when they want to, by overriding state right-to-work laws and adopting California’s so-called ABC test to treat certain independent contractors as employees.

The union bosses went to bat for Joe Biden in 2020, and this is their payoff. Joe Biden takes a rosy view of unions, and it probably is easy to be sentimental about blue-collar work when you have been in elected office since the early 1970s. Nobody named Biden has lifted anything heavier than money in decades.

Why would a worker want to avoid joining a union? Wouldn’t they prefer to have someone looking out for their interests? That might be the case — if American workers were naïve enough to believe that the Teamsters and the other unions are looking out for their interests, rather than looking out for the interests of, say, a union boss’s brother getting paid a $42-an-hour wage on a New York City construction site while operating a coffee concession. There are, as it turns out, a great many blue-collar workers not much interested in paying for the privilege of enriching politically connected labor leaders who do no real work.

Beyond the corruption and the desire to be free of union politics, other workers have practical, bottom-line reasons for wishing to remain free of union entanglements. For instance, owner-operators involved in long-haul trucking cut their own deals with their clients, working on their own terms rather than on terms set by a union boss. They can do that even where a union already is present. Under the PRO Act, some of these independent operators would risk being reclassified as employees — meaning reclassified out of business. That is because of the second prong of the ABC test insists that independent contractors must be engaged in incidental work rather than core business activities — owner-operators who do drive for trucking services (as opposed to contracting with a farm or a construction company) wouldn’t pass the test to qualify as independent contractors.

Right-to-work laws, which have been passed in the majority of states, do not restrict voluntary union activity. What they do is forbid unions from forcing workers who do not wish to belong to the union to pay dues anyway as a condition of employment — which is to say, they forbid a particularly nasty form of extortion. Anybody who is not a union official who demands a kickback out of workers’ wages as a condition of employment is considered to be engaged in racketeering. The PRO Act would (probably unconstitutionally) supersede laws duly enacted by the state legislatures, making such extortion a mandatory business practice from coast to coast.

Other measures in the act are political power grabs of questionable constitutionality: for example, transferring power from the federal appeals courts to the National Labor Relations Board in certain cases, and limiting employers’ free-speech rights to keep them from arguing against unionization.

The economy dominated by lunch-bucket jobs and assembly lines is a thing of the past and has been for some time, which is why only a very small share of private-sector workers (concentrated in highly regulated services work such as health care, utilities, and transportation) are union members, while 40 percent of government workers at the municipal level and 30 percent at the state and federal level are unionized. Nine days out of ten, the American labor movement is not working to improve the position of American factory workers — it is working to keep the public schools closed at the behest of unionized teachers who don’t want to go back to regular work. In return for this political favoritism, they keep Democratic campaign coffers full. That is the corrupt bargain at the heart of the PRO Act.

Senate Republicans may be able to stop this — or Democrats may take this opportunity to nuke the filibuster. The Democrats are in a radical mood, and the nation risks paying a very high price for Republicans’ unnecessary failure in throwing away their Senate majority. Sometimes, obstruction is just the right thing, and this is one of those times.

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