In his 2009 Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI concluded that “The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must be honoured today even more than in the past .” America has an opportunity to answer this call and promote solidarity in our society through the Protecting the Right to Organize or “PRO” Act, currently before the U.S. Congress.
American society has been headed in the opposite direction for decades, with individualism replacing solidarity and union membership dwindling. In the 1950s, one in three private sector American workers belonged to a labor union; today, that number is one in sixteen. Why is that? Three critical reasons are that 1) unscrupulous employers routinely discipline or fire workers who try to form unions, 2) a growing number of workers in the “gig” economy have no legal right to organize under current law, and 3) a large number of immigrant workers are excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. The PRO Act would address all three issues and many other obstacles to worker organizing.
Although most employees enjoy a legally protected right to organize under current labor law, employers who discipline or fire workers for exercising that right do not face serious penalties. Employers have learned that retaliating against workers who try to organize is a good investment – it thwarts union organizing by discouraging other workers from joining them. The PRO Act would enable workers who face such retaliation to secure triple damages, ensuring that employers think twice before violating their rights.
A growing number of “gig” workers in sectors across the economy – from Uber drivers to construction workers – are currently employed as independent contractors. These workers have no legal right to organize and form unions under the National Labor Relations Act. The PRO Act would give these workers the right to organize and bargain collectively for the first time.
Millions of immigrant workers, from legally admitted “guest workers” to undocumented ones, are exploited because the National Labor Relations Act provides no remedy if their rights are violated. The PRO Act clarifies that these workers, too, enjoy the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. No worker’s immigration status is a green light for employers to engage in unfair labor practices.
As Pope Francis observed in Fratelli Tutti, “Solidarity is a word that is not always well received; in certain situations, it has become a dirty word, a word that dare not be said .” But we must so dare. America’s labor laws are arguably the weakest in the developed world, and this constitutes an open wound to social solidarity. It’s time to begin fixing that, starting with passage of the PRO Act.