The PRO Act: Labor’s Catalyst or Political Stunt?

“I urge Congress to send the PRO Act to my desk so we can summon a new wave of worker power and create an economy that works for everyone.” — President Biden, March 9th 2021

“The Employee Free Choice Act will pass by the end of the year” – Vice President Biden at Pittsburg Labor Day rally, 2009

If President Biden and his Democrat-controlled Congress pass the Protect the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), Biden could confidently brag about being the most pro-labor President since FDR.

The PRO Act is a collection of powerful pro-labor legislation that unions have tried and failed to pass for decades, since the anti-labor Taft Hartley Act of 1947 that acted as a counter-revolution to the 1945-56 strike wave — the biggest in American history. Many of the union victories in the 1935 Wagner Act were sterilized by Taft Hartley, haunting unions ever since.

The PRO Act would reverse large chunks of Taft Hartley and thus deserves broad support, since unions would be easier to organize and maintain while other anti-labor laws would be repealed.

It’s passage would open doors to the restructuring of labor relations in the United States, which is ultimately why it stands little chance of passing under a Democrat-majority Congress and Presidency, and especially with the strategy being deployed by the unions pursuing it.

The Filibuster Firewall

After the PRO Act cleared its first major hurdle — getting passed by the House of Representatives on April 9th — The New York Times announced that the measure was dead on arrival at the Senate:

“The measure [PRO Act] was all but certain to run into a brick wall of opposition in the Senate, where 60 votes would be needed to advance it past a filibuster and Republicans are broadly opposed.”

Biden and leading Democrats have seemingly accepted the Senate blockade as final. A discussion around filibuster reform has started, though is unlikely to happen in such a way that robs the Democrats of having a structural excuse for inaction.

Consequently, the only real possibility for a true working-class agenda in the middle of a pandemic-economic crisis is to apply massive political pressure on Democrats and Republicans, enough to ultimately bend both parties against their will, like the first two stimulus bills — passed by a Republican Senate and Trump.

The biggest barriers to applying the pressure needed to win the PRO Act are a handful of labor leaders of the big unions and will be the ultimate reason why the PRO Act is likely to die ingloriously in the Senate, where the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) died before it under Obama-Biden, for the exact same reason: labor’s unwillingness to apply serious political pressure against the Democrats.

A Relevant Lesson from the Obama-Biden Administration

It’s impossible to exaggerate the hopes raised with Obama’s Presidency: after 8 awful years under Bush Jr. a new era of “change” was proclaimed, and the Obama-Biden Administration was given a supermajority in Congress to fast track their promises. Union’s believed, naively, that because they dumped hundreds of millions of their members’ dollars into electing Obama-Biden, that unions would be given the rewards they were promised — especially the passage of EFCA.

Biden’s role in passing EFCA was supposed to be critical, because he’d spent decades in the Senate and was to whip the votes needed to pass the bill.

Instead, after being symbolically passed in the House, EFCA quietly died without receiving the dignity of a Senate vote.

Union leaders, outraged, failed to consider that Obama was a political admirer of Ronald Reagan, or that Biden spent decades serving the big banks in his home state of Delaware — the biggest corporate tax haven in the country. Nor did unions consider that the previous Democratic President, Bill Clinton, passed NAFTA and destroyed welfare while helping pass Biden’s Crime Bill that swept the economic fallout into prison.

Many labor leaders never forgave Obama-Biden for EFCA, nor have they seemed to learn any lessons from it. Now some labor leaders are being fooled by the same farce, believing that because they were instrumental in Biden getting elected that he would reward them by passing the PRO Act, which is radically more pro-labor than EFCA.

Labor’s Illusions with Biden

The big unions have a structurally weak political strategy that derives from a relationship of dependence on the Democrats, rather than one of strength that comes from applying pressure.

Many union leaders believe Biden is a friend of labor. They cling to his symbolic pro-labor gestures — for example replacing the head of the NLRB — while ignoring his larger anti-labor actions — for example betraying his public promise that he would pass a $15 minimum wage.

Who are Biden’s real friends? In Kim Moody’s article, ‘Who Paid, Who Benefits’, the 2020 election funding is assessed, where Democrats outspent Republicans $6.9 billion to $3.8 billion, with unions and other non-profits accounting for a mere morsel — $100 million — of Democrat contributions. When elections are so blatantly bought and sold it’s the billionaires at the top of the Democratic Party who call the shots.

But wasn’t Biden’s “historic” stimulus a pro-labor gesture? The liberal sections of the media have exaggerated the true impact of the stimulus, while ignoring that most of it was an extension of Trump’s stimulus bills, with Biden lowering monthly unemployment benefits. Trump’s stimulus was itself an outgrowth of the historic crisis caused by the pandemic. The political momentum that Trump helped facilitate carried through the election into Biden’s administration.

The stimulus was, seemingly, a radical break from the decades-long Reaganomics of both parties. But Trump and Mitch McConnell hadn’t suddenly become generous. They were terrified. They understood that the bottom of society had fallen out, and that the massive BLM demonstrations during a historic jobs’ crisis contained revolutionary seeds as the pandemic fertilized the fields.

Biden’s aim is not to deepen this process, but to weaken it with the hopes of reversing it. This is why the $15 minimum wage was struck down, why monthly unemployment was lowered, why Biden will likely reverse Trump’s decision to leave Afghanistan, and why there’s no plans to address the structural and historic levels of economic inequality.

Because some union leaders believe they’ll be gifted the PRO Act, the militant campaign necessary to actually win is stillborn. Most union leaders aren’t willing to pay the political price for a serious struggle for the PRO Act, which would require them to mobilize and ultimately risk discrediting Biden and the larger Democratic Party — exposing the Party’s pro-corporate roots, and thus spoiling the labor-Democrat political “partnership.”

Is the PRO Act a PR Stunt?

If Democrats know the PRO Act is destined to die in the Senate, why promote it?

Like EFCA before it, the PRO Act is a great way for Democrats to guarantee the next round of union campaign contributions, while risking nothing. It takes no actual effort to tack your name to a bill as a co-sponsor when the bill has no chance of passing. Nearly every Congressional House Democrat is a co-sponsor of the PRO Act, while a handful of Republicans voted in its favor — likely to earn a spot at the union trough.

The House of Representatives is allowed to pass more radical legislation before sending it to the Senate for slaughter. EFCA too was passed in the House, which gave politicians pro-union bragging rights about the aborted bill that never reached the Senate floor.

The PRO Act is an opportunity for Democrats to say at election time: “we couldn’t pass the PRO Act in the last Congress, but vote out those Republicans and we’ll pass it next time.” This tired charade is decades old, where certain union leaders and politicians playact their roles, meant to fool only the rank and file paying for the high-priced theatrics.

The PRO Act’s Biggest Barrier

Some unions may be serious about waging a real struggle for the PRO Act, but face an immediate problem: nobody knows what it is. Not only the broader public but even union members — the majority would likely shrug their shoulders if surveyed.

This problem can be fixed by education of course, but the next barrier is equally big: the PRO Act would remain excluded from the top priorities of working people, including union members. Priorities would remain housing, student and household debt, a $15 minimum wage, Medicare For All, etc., especially in the middle of a pandemic-triggered recession.

Yes, the labor rights expanded under the PRO Act can help win these and other demands, but the labor-specific minutiae of the bill makes it less agitational than other demands, while its effects would seem less immediate.

Thus, the unions should combine the PRO Act with more popular demands, but this effective approach of solidarity lies outside the narrow politics of most union leaders, who hold a competitive or even dismissive attitude toward other demands, since only so many crumbs fall from the bosses table — and the PRO Act would itself be a feast.

A basic law of organizing says that powerful demands require powerful pressure to win. A demand as big as the PRO Act — the likes of which haven’t been passed in decades— usually occur amid a broader movement seeking to fix several structural problems. The Pro Act cannot be passed ala cart because working people won’t focus their political attention on it if they believe their other issues — like debt, housing, healthcare, jobs, war, etc. — will be placed on the backburner.

If popular demands were organized in tandem with the PRO Act among a coalition of organizations, unions might succeed at persuading a broader base to support the Pro Act. But the existing separation of the labor movement from other social movements remains a fundamental weakness, of both organized labor and the broader Left.

DSA Enters the Fray

Recently the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) announced, curiously, that the PRO Act would be the organization’s “highest national priority” for Biden’s first 100 days. Most DSA members likely reacted by googling “what is the PRO Act?” If DSA members actually voted on their national priorities the PRO Act may not have made their top 10.

Why did DSA choose to champion the PRO Act? Likely because many union staff are influential DSA members, who believe that such a campaign will bring the labor movement closer to DSA. This isn’t the worst political approach, but carrying water for labor leaders when the broader movement is thirsty for more pressing demands can make a socialist group seem aloof to the needs of working people.

Ultimately DSA cannot spend this historical moment cozying up to the labor bureaucracy, especially if it’s done by championing a losing campaign. There is too much at stake in 2021 to pick losing battles while political enemies gather at the gates.

If DSA wants to be a political leader of the working class, it has to organize around issues that excite and agitate, and then actually win these campaigns. Following the unions who are blindly following the Democrats into a corporate dead end is a suicidal approach for socialists.

The far-right will capitalize handsomely if the Left badly mishandles pandemic politics, to the point where Trump may soon be viewed with pleasant nostalgia. Only by the Left’s perceived inaction can the far-right portray itself as the “anti-establishment” political option.

Beyond the Pandemic

Above critiques aside, passing the PRO Act is not impossible. But it can’t be done using losing methods. If the goal is to restructure labor relations in the United States — which the PRO Act would open doors toward — then a truly powerful movement is required to overcome the resistance of the corporate-dominated status quo.

Just like winning Medicare For All means overcoming the power of the healthcare oligarchy — health insurance, pharmaceutical, and hospital chains — winning the PRO Act means overcoming the collective strength of nation-wide mega-corporations and even mid-level employers.

Anything less than a powerful mass movement is not a serious approach, and pandemic politics requires a higher-level of seriousness to match the quickly-rising stakes. If 2020 proved anything — with Trump, Bernie and Black Lives Matter — it’s that we’ve entered the era of mass politics, where the stale backroom lobbying of labor leaders sits molding in history’s trash can.

Ultimately the PRO Act will not pass — with the existing balance of power between labor and capital — because it takes the economy in the opposite direction that both capitalist parties have been taking the country for 40 years. Stopping this trend requires the labor and socialist movement to directly confront the Democrats with an aggressive, mass movement approach.

With this strategy the PRO Act could be the catalyst for a new labor upsurge, but without it we can expect another chapter of a predictable story about how unions were betrayed, once again, and did nothing.

Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

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