May Day is the biggest day on the calendar for the international labor movement, but it passes almost unmentioned each year in the United States. That’s in spite of the fact that the holiday commemorates the workers killed in the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886. As a corrective, Deconstructed offers a brief history of organized labor in the U.S. Then, Jimmy Williams of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades joins Ryan Grim to discuss the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, a labor reform bill currently before Congress.
Ryan Grim: Last Saturday was May Day, celebrated around the world as International Workers Day. I don’t know if it’s ironic or just revealing, but the holiday goes by in the U.S. barely noticed.
Consider this May Day Deconstructed episode a corrective. I’m Ryan Grim, and today we’ll be talking about the PRO Act, the most sweeping labor-reform legislation to have a real shot at getting passed through Congress since the 1970s.
Krystall Ball: The PRO Act is a sweeping piece of legislation. It would reshape the landscape for workers and organized labor, tilting the playing field back in favor of unions after decades of eroding worker rights.
Chris Hayes: The PRO Act would be the strongest change to labor law, probably since the New Deal.
Fox Anchor: The PRO Act, which critics argue would actually make it harder for workers to choose to stay out of unions.
Dana Perino: That would basically end right-to-work in 27 states. That’s pretty egregious, right?
President Joseph R. Biden: I’m calling on Congress to pass Protect the Right to Organize, the PRO Act, and send it to my desk so we can support the right to unionize. [Applause.]
RG: May Day celebrates the martyrs of Haymarket Square. After the Civil War, as Union troops still occupied the South, radical Republicans in Congress during Reconstruction implemented what became known as the second founding, a new republic of sorts, which put power back in the hands of workers, both white and black.
Karl Marx followed the American Civil War closely. He considered it a kind of workers revolution. And that revolution had captured the imaginations of workers around the world. Many Europeans — some of them friends with Marx — had fled to the United States in the aftermath of the failed rebellions that swept the continent in 1848, and their arrival seeded our politics with revolution-minded activists and soldiers.
After the war, veterans in the North began forming secret societies that functioned as proto-unions.
In our recent episode on Biden’s immigration policy, we talked about how his own ancestor from Ireland was a member of one of those secret societies. That one was known as the Molly Maguires:
JB: — the newspaper articles my Uncle Ed left me accused him of being a Molly Maguire. You know the Molly Maguires? He denied it; we all hoped it had been true.
RG: The most influential of the new secret societies was founded in 1869, at the height of Reconstruction, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and called the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. It became an organization that sought to unite the interests of all workers, regardless of race, religion, or national origin, and it in the 1870s actively sought to recruit formerly enslaved people into its ranks. The Knights of Labor wanted to do away with what they called wage slavery: “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.”
It was a radical idea, but this was a time where entire social arrangements were being rethought. We think of America today as a violent place — and no doubt it is — but it pales in comparison to what was going on then.
Along with the Civil War, the ongoing genocide of Native Americans served as a bloodstained backdrop. Countless workers, many of them Chinese immigrants, died building the transcontinental railroads. And the 1870s saw an outbreak of violence at the workplace, with bosses using both regular and paramilitary troops to massacre workers and break strikes.
Yet by 1886, the Knights of Labor had risen to close to one million members in a country that only had about 15 million workers, according to the census.
The Knights of Labor called for a general strike on May 1 of that year. They were demanding an 8-hour day, and they were supporting a railroad strike in the Southwest. Its leadership opposed the idea, worrying it was pushing for too much, too fast and that they weren’t ready for the counterattack. But those pushing for it won out.
So hundreds of thousands of workers walked off the job. A few days into it, Chicago police shot into a crowd of demonstrators, killing two. Anarchists sympathetic to the general strike called for a rally the next day in Haymarket Square, and somewhere around 1,500 people showed up. As the event was wrapping up, and long after most of the speakers had retired to their barstools, somebody threw a bomb at the police, killing one and wounding dozens of others. The cops shot back at the crowd, killing one in return and wounding many more.
This is the moment we now mark as May Day. We don’t often talk about what came next. The counterattack the leadership had feared came down like a hammer. The organizers of the rally, despite no evidence they had any hand in the bombing or were even there at the time, were rounded up and executed.
A combined corporate and government onslaught ensued, as the Knights of Labor were branded dangerous anarchists; within four years, they’d lost almost their entire membership. The dream of industrial organizing — of uniting all workers together to create a better society for all — died, or at least was deferred. In its place rose craft unionism, and the American Federation of Labor.
Jimmy Williams: I’m Jimmy Williams, general vice president with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.
RG: Jimmy is our guest today, and we’ll be talking about the PRO Act later in the show. But his own life story flows directly out of the Haymarket bombing.
JW: Our union is a craft union that was formed in 1887 in response to Haymarket. For us, at the time, it was the International Brotherhood of Painters and Decorators, and our members were journeymen and apprentices that banded together and would work at a certain rate per day so that they could standardize wages in the industry that they worked in.
RG: The Knights of Labor might have been dead, but workers in factories kept fighting. In the battle between boss and worker, the government was squarely on the side of the bosses.
Between 1877 and 1900, the U.S. Army was sent in to smash 11 strikes and the National Guard was called in well over 100 times, while mayors made sure the police were a regular presence at strikes. In 1892, in Homestead, Pennsylvania, Pinkerton strike breakers were brought in, attacking and killing ten workers at a Carnegie plant. The workers shot back, killing three Pinkertons. The National Guard came in, occupied it, and broke the union.
The next year, a massive nationwide railroad strike brought the country to a halt, and it was violently suppressed, with the leader of the Pullman Strike, Eugene Debs, thrown into prison, where he became a socialist.
Amid ongoing violence, the Socialist Party took off. Led by Debs, the party won mayoral contests around the country, elected two members of Congress, and often competed with the other major parties on an even footing. Debs himself ran for president five times, the last from a jail cell where he sat serving a sentence for violating the Sedition Act for opposing the war. He still won 3.4 percent of the vote, better than Nader did.
The unrest and the rise of the leftist party convinced the capitalist class it needed to compromise. That’s when Jimmy’s great grandfather, Ralph Williams, entered the union movement.
JW: My great-grandfather joined in 1908 as an apprentice painter in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That was the traditional way to join a craft union at the time, is that you would apprentice at your craft and work side by side with a journeyman, and work for and potentially with numerous contractors that would employ those skilled laborers. That’s how he joined the union.
RG: In 1910, the LA Times building was bombed by anarchists. Violent suppression of strikes at factories and mines continued. Then in 1911 came one the deadliest and most infamous industrial disasters in U.S. history.
Film narrator: The deplorable conditions of sweatshop labor are brought to the nation’s attention: 148 persons, mainly women and children, are burned to death as a fire sweeps through the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City.
RG: Workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, locked inside by their bosses and fleeing from the fire, threw themselves from the building onto the streets below.
World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic shifted power to workers. In 1917, the Bolsheviks took over in Russia, creating the Soviet Union and panicking bosses around the world. Now it was communists rather than just anarchists they were warning about.
All of this was happening amidst the Great Migration, the Jim Crow-driven exodus of millions of Black Americans from the South, mostly to the North and Midwest. There, bosses employed some of the new workers as strikebreakers, paying them far less than striking workers were demanding.
While the white working class was already split between white Protestants and Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Eastern and Southern Europe, now the wedge was driven in again, producing hostility between the striking white workers and the Black workers brought in to replace them. Competition for non-union jobs between Black Americans and those of European descent was tense as well.
Black soldiers who’d returned from World War I argued their service rendered them entitled to the full rights of citizenship, giving a boost to a civil rights struggle that had been repressed for 40 years. That effort ran headlong into a white backlash that had been kicked off by the insanely inflammatory white supremacist film “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915. The movie was such a phenomenon that it fueled the rebirth of the long-dormant Ku Klux Klan. After it was screened in the White House, President Woodrow Wilson praised it as “history writ with lightning.”
Wilson worried privately in spring 1919 that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that after hundreds of years of slavery, race, racism and labor relations have always been intermingled in America. We didn’t get bolshevism, but 1919 did produce the so-called Red Summer, named for a series of race riots in which whites attacked Blacks in cities across the country. Blacks often fought back, and labor tensions were often at the core of the battles.
1919 saw a general strike in Seattle. In 1920, Wall Street was bombed, killing 40 and injuring hundreds — a bombing probably carried out by Italian anarchists. Then in 1921, whites rampaged through Tulsa, Oklahoma and destroyed what was known at the time as Black Wall Street, an attack fueled by white hostility to Black workers.
Film narrator: When the smoke cleared in the early morning of June 1, 1921, Black Wall Street lay in ruins.
RG: In 1919, nearly one in five workers took some form of disruptive action in workplace drives for union recognition; 365,000 steel workers walked off the job in September. The strike was a disaster.
As organizer Mary Harris Jones — better known as Mother Jones — put it, “The press groveled at the feet of the steel gods. The public were fed daily stories of revolution and Bolshevism and Russian gold supporting the strike.” Propaganda like that, and state violence, broke the strike. By January it was over; the union smashed and its numbers dwindling. Nationwide, unions lost nearly half their members in the first few years of the Roaring ’20s.
PBS: In the 1920s, the federal government continued to give labor scant recognition. Labor gives its own unions scarcely more.
RG: With less hope of winning major, multi-employer agreements, workers returned to direct action, and some companies continued with their go-to strategy, bringing in troops — police, National Guard, paramilitary units like the Pinkertons. In 1927, six strikers were killed at Rocky Mountain Fuel in Colorado; two years later, six more were massacred in North Carolina. Other companies employed more sophisticated union-busting strategies. That’s when they started to develop the kind of soft propaganda that’s so dominant and effective today.
The Supreme Court played along, outlawing picketing and declaring minimum wage and child labor laws unconstitutional. Then the market crashed, and the Great Depression set in.
[Upbeat musical interlude.]
RG: FDR responded with the New Deal, and the capitalist class responded by having the Supreme Court strike it down, piece by piece. So FDR pushed a new law that would expand the Court.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Our difficulty with the Court today arises not from the Court as an institution, but from human beings within it. But we cannot yield our constitutional destiny to the personal judgement of a few men who, being fearful of the future, would deny us the necessary means of dealing with the present.
RG: Meanwhile, a bill from Hugo Black, who’d later become Supreme Court justice, had moved through Congress shrinking the work-week to 30 hours and requiring pay to stay the same. It was a raise for everybody, with the plan being that fewer hours meant more work for the millions of unemployed. FDR didn’t want to sign that bill, and it’s a long and complicated story, but we eventually wound up with the National Labor Relations Act, or the Wagner Act, instead.
Sen. Robert F. Wagner: The National Labor Relations Act is now the law of the land. We shall see the dawn of a new era of peace and justice for all in our economic life.
RG: It finally gave workers the basic right to form a union, to strike in solidarity with other workers, and to be free from management, anti-union pressure. It was explicitly designed to ease tensions between workers and their bosses. Companies challenged the law anyway, asking the Court to deem it unconstitutional.
Film narrator: Saluted is the author of the law passed by Congress and signed by the president to adjudicate the nation’s labor union dispute, is New York Sen. Robert F. Wagner. By this act, employers are bound to bargain collectively with an organized majority of their workers. Meanwhile, a mill owner is to forestall government prosecution, dispute the constitutionality of the Wagner Act. In the U.S. District Court of Kansas City, they get a ruling.
Judge: Congress has the power to regulate commerce amongst the several states. Manufacturing is not commerce, nor any part of commerce. In my opinion, this law is unconstitutional.
RG: After his sweeping re-election victory in 1936, the cases finally made their way to the Supreme Court. But now with the sort of court-packing hanging over the justices’ heads, the court buckled and upheld the law.
Film narratorr: In a series of 5-4 decisions, the Supreme Court upholds the Wagner Act, and broad New Deal legislation becomes constitutional by the deciding vote of a single justice.
RG: Jimmy Williams’ grandfather joined the union at the front-end of the Great Depression. He watched the Wagner Act get passed, and saw how it built the middle class.
In the 1946 midterms, he started to see the first serious pushback. Unions were furious at Democrats, believing Truman had sided too easily with management in disputes. 1946 had seen the most strikes of any year in American history. Organized labor sat out the midterm, and the country was in an anti-union and cranky mood, upset with big labor for demanding too much, for shutting down too much of the economy too often. Republicans swept to victory, using the slogan “Had Enough?” And they took immediate advantage of their new majorities.
Film narrator: With the Republican Party in control of both Houses, Congress passed the Taft–Hartley Act, which made substantial changes in the Wagner labor law. Sen. Robert Taft, the sponsor, explained the bill thus:
Sen. Robert Taft: The committees which wrote this bill had no anti-union prejudice. They have tried to restore equality in collective bargaining
RG: President Harry Truman strongly opposed Taft-Hartley:
President Harry Truman: If we weaken our system of collective bargaining, we weaken the position of every working man in the country.
RG: He vetoed the bill, but Congress easily overrode the veto.
JW: Some of the things that Taft-Hartley did really didn’t take hold until the 1970s and ’80s, when business and corporations started organizing themselves. You know, one of the biggest ways to control cost was for businesses to figure out ways to break the unions.
My family was a part of probably what was the most monumental construction strike in the city of Philadelphia. In 1972, my uncle, who was a lead organizer for the Building Trades Council in Philadelphia, was a part of what was known as the Altimose strike of 1972. That was when the tools that were given to employers under Taft-Hartley fully emerged. Prior to the automotive strike, employers didn’t even use the secondary boycotting provision of Taft-Hartley to reel back the union’s influence and power over construction sites.
Altimose was a young man who was funded completely by the Associated Building Contractors of America, and decided to try to break the unions in Philadelphia. And he was met with a ton of resistance. And the tool that he was going to use was to have some of the workers on the job be union, others non-union, and tried to split the job. The building trades and all the unions stuck together in solidarity and decided to strike the job, and then what ensued was an eight-year legal battle, that ultimately the unions didn’t prevail. Altimose, while maybe not being a successful contractor, was pointed as a model for how to break construction unions, and their solidarity.
JW: As we got away from being a production society, and became more of a consumer society, unions lost a ton of influence. And there were other things, you know? Throughout the ’50s, with the McCarthyism and the Red Scare that took place, unions were painted as communist organizations.
Newscaster: Says the Oklahoma Manufacturers Association, the NLRB will out-Stalin Stalin, out-Soviet the Russian Soviets.
JW: There were mass strikes and things that unions did that a lot of times the media and the corporate interest would paint unions out to be radical.
RG: Right. Right. And so, from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, you’re seeing this kind of corporate assault on unions, using the existing labor laws and organized labor after Jimmy Carter is elected, even though Carter was not kind of an ally of labor — or there were a lot of hostility between between Carter and an organized labor — they still expected that with these big majorities that this was going to be the time that they were going to change a lot of these laws that capital was using to beat its workers back. That fell just short.
So how much was that failure still resonating with the union culture in the ’90s when you got involved?
JW: Yeah, I mean, the laws that you’re talking about in the ’70s under Carter, it was a lot of the Southern Democrats that came from right-to-work states that did not support labor law reform in the late ’70s. And if you think about it, one of Ronald Reagan’s first acts as president of the United States was to break the airline traffic controllers’ strike.
President Ronald Reagan: You can’t sit and negotiate with a union that’s in violation of the law.
Newscaster: With those words, President Reagan told the air traffic controllers to be back in the towers Wednesday morning, or they’d be fired and face prosecution.
JW: Now, while that broke that union back, it was also kind of a nod to the business community of if the president of the United States can break a strike, well, so can you.
Union member: What’s the president gonna do when we all get fired? What’s the United States government gonna do when 13,000 air traffic controllers are out of work?
JW: And it reverberated throughout organized labor. When Bill Clinton came to power in the ’90s, it was a different Democrat. It was a Blue Dog; it was a corporate interest Democrat.
1992 political ad: They’re a new generation of Democrats, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore, and they don’t think the way the old Democratic Party did.
JW: You know, if you think about it, Bill Clinton passed NAFTA, which completely, completely destroyed certain segments of the unionized industries, specifically manufacturing and others.
And it was a different Democrat at the time. And so there wasn’t much of an appetite to support labor unions, and hadn’t been. And that lasted for two decades, the whole decade of the ’90s, all the way through to the 2000s under Bush, and there was a renewed hope that under Barack Obama, there would be support for labor unions. But sadly, we couldn’t get there.
RG: So 2009 comes around, and you’ve got your first crack at it, basically, since the ’70s, since Clinton wasn’t really even going to entertain it. So unions push for something called EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act.
Newscaster: Unions have expressed frustration with the Obama administration over the ease of unionization. The president today said he will support a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize.
President Barack Obama: The Employee Free Choice Act is in response to 20, 30 years where it’s become more and more difficult for unions to just get a fair election and have their employers actually negotiate with them. A lot of times, companies who may be good employers, but just don’t want the bother of having a union, will work very hard to make sure a union doesn’t develop.
RG: Which had as its centerpiece was called card check, which is the idea that if organizers and workers get enough cards signed that say, “I want to join a union”, if they get a majority of those, then that should be enough. That you don’t have to go through this election where people who had previously said they want to join a union now are forced to sit through these meetings with their bosses and told that if they go through with this vote, they’re going to be fired, or their jobs are going to be shipped to China or whatever it is.
Unions did have high hopes. I remember walking around the Senate halls shortly after Obama was inaugurated and I saw Ben Nelson. I said, “Sen. Nelson, where do you stand on EFCA?” And he said: “Oh, forget it. I’m against it.”
RG: And with 60 Democratic senators, you didn’t quite have 60 yet, but you would eventually get 60 sworn in, losing one was it.
RG: And that wasn’t quite it, maybe you could get him back, but it just felt like that was it. And the White House said: Well, we don’t have Ben Nelson, we don’t have 60, real shame, guess we’re not going to do EFCA. What was your read on why that fell apart, and what are you doing differently this time with the PRO Act to make sure that the White House can’t just say: Well, that’s a real shame. Sorry, guys.
JW: Well, I think there’s two things.
I mean, current President Biden is not President Obama. He has a longstanding record when it comes to support[ing] labor unions, where Barack Obama was kind of new to the legislative world. And at the time, we were coming off of the heels of the economic collapse of the Great Recession. And the first thing that Congress did was passed the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was a big stimulus package that created jobs, and public works, and things of that nature, but immediately McConnell said he was going to move to an obstructionist form of government in the Senate, there was a hope, at the time that another U.S. senator, Arlen Specter — who comes from Pennsylvania where I’m from — Arlen Specter was a middle-of-the-road Republican —
Sen. Arlen Specter: I feel comfortable as a moderate Republican and I vote my conscience.
JW: — who, at the time, was a key vote on some of the legislative initiatives coming out of the White House.
AS: My vote on this bill was very difficult for many reasons.
JW: And he also said he couldn’t support the Employee Free Choice Act.
AS: I will not support cloture on this bill.
JW: He was up for reelection the following year, and was primaried from the right in the Republican Party, switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party.
AS: As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more aligned with the philosophy of the Democratic Party.
Speaker: Well, obviously, we are not happy that Sen. Specter has decided to become a Democrat.
JW: He courted labor support, and guess what? Even got it. Even got labor support, when he single handedly was one of the most key members to kill our most important bill at that time.
JW: We’ve learned a lot from those mistakes. Today’s environment is different. We don’t have the same types of majorities in the United States Senate that we had in the past. However, there’s more of a willingness from the White House to push and promote organized labor. And it’s real. President Biden is not just giving lip service. Barack Obama didn’t even push it as a major legislative priority. He even campaigned on walking pickets with labor unions.
BO: If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America. [Applause.]
JW: I don’t know if you remember, but in 2010, there was a big wave of attacks against public employees.
RG: Oh yeah.
JW: In fact, the union movement shutdown up in Madison, Wisconsin with Governor Walker.
Judy Woodruff: The public workers gathered at the Wisconsin State Capitol say they are prepared to make concessions on benefits. But they remained vehemently opposed to Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to curb or end collective bargaining rights for most public sector unions.
JW: And you didn’t hear a peep out of the White House in showing support for those workers.
JW: I think the labor movements have gotten a lot wiser. I think we know that we need to hold the line and we can’t support politicians that don’t support our most fundamental right, which is the right to organize.
RG: And so how does the PRO Act differ policy-wise from EFCA? What did you learn were the things you did wrong on the policy side?
JW: I don’t know if we did anything wrong on the policy side with EFCA. I think we did wrong on the political side.
I think what we are witnessing today, which didn’t happen with the Employee Free Choice Act, is that there is a public dialogue happening around labor-law reform, which many, many people in this country, you know, they just go to work every day, they don’t even know what their rights are at work, unless something really bad happens to them.
Policy-wise, it is different. One of the things that the business community did with Employee Free Choice is, they went very public early, because they were afraid that Obama was going to push it. They ran $250 million worth of TV ads in his first 100 days, likening union organizers to members of the mafia, and saying they’re gonna come to your house and force you to sign a card, and next thing you know, you’re gonna be forced into a union.
The PRO Act does not have card check. The PRO Act just gets to elections quicker, and they still hold free and fair elections in the workplace. Now, if the employer, however, commits egregious unfair labor practices during the process, the Labor Board can rule that the showing of interest and the majority support is enough for the union to be declared the bargaining representative, which is important.
In fact, in the instance that just took place in Bessemer, Alabama —
Norah O’Donnell: Amazon has officially defeated efforts to unionize workers at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. More than 3,000 workers voted and more than half said no to unionizing —
JW: — where there’s already over 30 or 32 filed unfair labor practices against Amazon, that could have been the case that PRO Act had been the law, that the union would have been declared the winner based on cards.
RG: I think that’s a really interesting kind of legislative innovation. I want to unpack it a little more for people so they understand what’s going on. Under the old version, if you got your 50 percent-plus-one of cards, then you get a union. And so what the companies did is, as you said, they ran these quarter-billion dollars worth of ads saying, well, they’re going to send thugs around and break your knees to get you to sign these cards and then force you into a union.
Anti-union ad: They could even come to your home and pressure you to sign on to joining the union against your will. It’s already happening to thousands of workers across the country.
RG: I forget how they branded it. It was like a forced union, or something — wasn’t “forced” in their branding?
Anti-union ad: They call it the Employee Free Choice Act. It should really be called the Employee Forced Choice Act.
RG: And so now what you’re saying is we’re going to keep the elections. But there are going to be a lot of rules around what bosses and managers can do and say. They’re not allowed to manipulate the election, like they have in the past. There will be actual fines if they do. And if they get caught doing this, then you go to card check.
RG: And so that, even more so than the fines maybe, is a stick that might actually keep managers in line. Because they would rather have the election where they have some control than allow workers to just state their preferences openly. Do I have that basically, right?
JW: You do. You do. Currently management can do pretty much whatever they want. They can hold closed-door, captive-audience meetings throughout the election proceedings; they can break the law without any real monetary considerations on their part. And the PRO Act fixes a lot of that and makes it harder for management to run one-sided campaigns, because right now it is one-sided.
I mean, union organizers can’t even talk to workers during working hours, but yet management can however long they want. They hire big union-busting consulting firms that come in and scare the living daylights out of the workers and they just make it difficult. And the PRO Act does put monetary penalties on that and outlaws a lot of that behavior to have free elections, fair elections. It’s not a card-check bill. And we’ve already seen the Chamber of Commerce and others can’t seem to get the messaging right around it and keep trying to insinuate that it’s a card check bill, and it’s not.
RG: I’ve seen them trying to call it “stealth card check.” But anytime you put stealth in, people are like, eh. If you can’t even plausibly say, with your propaganda, that it’s card check, that you have to put in stealth, we’re not really buying this.
And the Bessemer case is a great example, because people followed that around the country there were a lot of people disappointed in how that unfolded. But if the PRO Act were law, it does appear like, given the violations that occurred, the workers would have a pretty decent chance of saying, these tipped election, or these might have tipped the election, so the do-over needs to be cards signed. Are there people who publicly say that they want to join this?
But let’s talk about the politics a little bit. A few weeks ago, over at The Intercept, we reported that Chuck Schumer had told the AFL-CIO that if they get 50 co-sponsors, he’ll put the bill on the floor. Now, he’s also been talking about the PRO Act as one of the vehicles to reform the filibuster, because it’s clearly not the kind of thing that is going to get 10 republican co-sponsors. That’s absurd. You could maybe see a world where you’d get somebody; I’d be interested in your take on that. But there’s no world in which you get 10. So how did you manage to convince some of the folks that you got on recently, particularly Joe Manchin and Angus King.
JW: Joe Manchin is a great example. I mean, West Virginia is the home of the United Mine Workers. And their economy has been decimated. And so Joe Manchin met with the AFL-CIO of the state of West Virginia and pledged his support, because he knows what his constituency wants, what’s in their roots. The labor movement runs deep in West Virginia.
Angus King was a little on the fence when it came to worker misclassification, but after meeting with the Maine state AFL-CIO and the leadership at the local level, realized that his constituents needed this type of relief and also pledged support.
We’re pushing hard on the three holdouts in the Democratic Party, which are Mark Warner, Kyrsten Sinema, and Mark Kelly — the two senators from Arizona and Mark Warner from Virginia. And they haven’t said no yet. Part of what we believe Sen. Schumer needs to do as well is he needs to convince his caucus as well, too. It’s not just us that needs to do so.
The big sticking point for a lot of people seems to be the independent contractor provision, not just gig workers, but independent contractors across the board. I kind of feel like sometimes gig workers get too much focus, given the many, many more millions of other independent contractors that exist. But can you describe for people what exactly is the current law versus what the PRO Act would open up by changing the definition of independent contractors and employees?
JW: Yeah. And I agree with you that gig workers, I think because it’s new, and it’s a newer form of how to find work and employment. But in our industry, in the construction industry, I can take you on job sites anywhere in the United States, specifically down South, and I could walk you on a job site where the drywall contractor who got the job, a $20 million contract to do a 30-story building, and doesn’t have one single employee, and gives all the direction and all the control but tells his 200 or so employees: You have to sign up as an independent contractor, and I’m going to 1099 you at the end of the job. No overtime. Fair Labor Standards violations that are just egregious. And what’s most important is that those workers do not have access to collective bargaining.
What the PRO Act would do would not change independent contracting, if it’s legit; what the PRO Act does is gives those workers the ability to collectively bargain, which right now they don’t have.
RG: Right. Right now, it’s basically illegal for them to organize if they’re independent contractors, right?
JW: Yep. We had 100 drywallers walk off of a job site in Tennessee working for a big multinational corporation through a subcontractor. They didn’t get paid for two weeks and never got a single penny in overtime on a huge project. And they walked off the job. They couldn’t sign union cards and go through an election because they were independent contractors. They didn’t get paid for two weeks. They were threatened with deportation from their prime contractor. The only recourse we had was to file a lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act to try to get them back pay. But by then it’s too late.
RG: Is there a way to split these situations, to address the independent contractor situation — exploitation — that has existed for decades, while reforming the gig-work situation, but not lumping it in in a way that causes people like Mark Warner or Sinema or Kelly to say: Well, I’m out of the entire PRO Act if this is what you’re gonna do?
JW: I don’t think you can. And just yesterday, Secretary Walsh, a union member who’s the current head of the Department of Labor, came out and said that gig workers should receive the benefits of employment like the rest of the economy.
I do think when done legitimately and you’re not receiving control and direction, independent subcontracting is fine for some people.
RG: Now, I also understand that, in the Senate, they’re working on drafting pieces of the PRO Act so that it could be compliant with reconciliation, which means that they would only need 50 votes to get through the Senate. What’s your sense of how serious that effort is? How much of the PRO Act can be written in such a way that it gets through reconciliation? And do you support that? Or are you worried that if some gets through reconciliation, then the rest of it, the critical reforms, will just be forgotten about?
JW: So the critical reforms can never be forgotten about. If the labor movement does hold true to pushing the PRO Act across the finish line, whether it’s this year or 10 years from now, it has to continue at the front of any legislative agenda we have as a movement.
My union came out against the filibuster and said it needs to be dismantled, and we need filibuster reform. The AFL-CIO did as well. You started this with talking about the Carter administration, and every time labor-law reform has been brought up, the filibuster has been the tool used to beat back.
When it comes to reconciliation, I think gains need to be made for the working class in this country. So if there are pieces, whether it be employer fines, employer misconduct, that can be reconciled because it creates revenue for the federal government, I think we need to do it. Because we need wins as a working class. [Laughs.]
JW: I think we’d be crazy not to. If there’s other ways to legislate revenue, whether it be through the worker misclassification pieces of the PRO Act, I think that’s a win for the working class in this country. There’s a lot that can be reconciled. And then there’s a lot that really needs to be a straight labor-law reform bill that updates, modernizes, and changes the code that the NLRB operates under. And I don’t know if we can get that through reconciliation.
RG: What kind of indications have you gotten from sources in the Senate or leadership around the PRO Act that they think they can get a decent amount of the PRO Act through under reconciliation? And would it go under the American Jobs Plan? Is that the vehicle they’re looking at?
JW: The plan now is to attach it to the American Jobs Plan as a clean bill. And if that whole bill can get approved by the Senate parliamentarian, then let’s go for a straight up or down vote on it.
JW: Time will tell. I don’t think anybody really has a crystal ball on that piece just yet. There’s a good case to be made that by updating the labor code, you’re actually going to increase revenue, too.
JW: So if the only way to increase revenue to the federal government is to change what employers can do during an election proceeding, well, let’s change the entire election proceeding and use the provisions of the PRO Act to do so.
RG: How confident do you feel about the votes if it does hit the floor? Let’s say you don’t get Warner, Kelly, and Sinema to co-sponsor, but it goes down to the floor, what’s your sense on whether they’re with you in that make-or-break moment?
JW: I mean, that’s a great question, because would Kelly, Warner, and Sinema be that stupid to hold up an American Jobs Plan and relief to the working class over the PRO Act? I sure hope not.
JW: However, the confidence level is going to be there when we get them to co-sponsor the bill. Because the bill has already passed the House. I mean it’s sitting, as a clean bill, without the American Jobs Plan; it could be taken up on the Senate floor as-is now. However, attaching it to the American Jobs Plan was a great victory for us so that it continues to remain a legislative priority of the White House, right?
But, like I said, if those three senators want to hold up that type of relief over the PRO Act, then we know we got bigger issues in the labor movement, and I could guarantee you they wouldn’t get our union support ever again into the future.
RG: And since there is a plausible reason that it could all fit through reconciliation, and if the parliamentarian, who is just a staffer, if she advises that she doesn’t think it could go through, would you guys support the chair overruling that? It doesn’t have to be Kamala Harris, it could be anybody who’s designated as the chair of the Senate that day, would you support them? I don’t want to say overruling because it’s not a ruling, it’s an advisory opinion. So say: Thank you for your opinion, but the ruling of the chair is that this is able to go through under reconciliation? Would you support that approach and is there any effort being made to build support for that?
JW: We would 100 percent support the chair overriding the parliamentarian for labor-law reform, because it’s the right thing to do for the American working class. I mean, playing politics with peoples’ futures isn’t the business that we’re in, in the labor movement. We’re about getting victories for the working class.
RG: Well Jimmy Williams, thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed.
JW: Thanks for having me.
[Instrumental version of “Happy Days Are Here Again”]
RG: That was Jimmy Williams, and that’s our show.
I want to cut in here with some reporting from my Intercept colleagues Zak Cassel and Rose Adams.
Combing through lobbying disclosure forms, they found that in the first three months of the year, gig firms who oppose the PRO Act have already spent more than $1 million lobbying Congress. The president and CEO of Lyft have both donated to Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Warner.
But it’s not just gig companies. Firms and trade associations against the PRO Act have spent well over $70 million lobbying Congress in the first quarter of this year, and they cover all sectors of the economy: the realtors, FedEx, Boeing, oil companies like Shell that that rely on layers and layers of contractors, insurance companies like AFLAC that have been accused of misclassifying sales associates as independent contractors; the American Property Casualty Insurance Association has spent $1.5 million lobbying alone — roughly equal to what the AFL-CIO has spent — and they’re joined by a host of other insurance companies and trade groups.
The retail industry is lobbying; so is the pork lobby, the chicken lobby, the hotel lobby, the general contractors lobby, the trucking lobby, the concrete lobby, the hospital lobby, Wall Street, the grocery store lobby, Herbalife, and on, and on.
Behind every dollar spent lobbying is the story of an exploited worker, somebody these companies don’t want to have the labor protections contained in the PRO Act.
Jimmy’s PAT union recorded spending just $120,000 on lobbying, even though they’re leading the charge. It’s a drop in the paint bucket.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
This week’s show included archival audio from the film “Labor Comes of Age,” produced by Encyclopedia Britannica films in 1966; “The Truman Years,” from the National Council for the Social Studies, and from “March of Time: The Supreme Court.”
And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.
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Paul F Tompkins: Hello, my name is Paul, and I’m a manager. I run a mom-and-pop multinational corporation, and today I’m here to talk about EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act — or, as I call it, the End of Fun, Coolness, and Awesomeness Act. If EFCA passes, my employees can form a union without telling me. But if they do that, how am I supposed to fire them?