Now, they're looking for a return on that investment.
Specifically, passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), which cleared the House earlier this year but remains stalled in the Senate with all Republicans and three Democrats refusing to support it—despite Biden's calls for its passage as part of his infrastructure proposal. The bill is a grab bag of big labor agenda items that would extend some of California's awful independent contractor regulations nationwide, abolish so-called "right to work" laws in the 27 states that have passed them, and expand the powers of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), among other things.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, has described the legislation as a "game-changer" for labor unions. And several major unions have threatened to withhold all future campaign contributions from the Democratic senators who continue to be the main stumbling blocks for the bill.
Unions are playing hardball over the PRO Act because they see it as a vital lifeline—a way to extract more revenue from America's workforce at a time when the overall number of unionized workers continues to decline. A high-profile defeat earlier this year in the first attempt to unionize an Amazon distribution center only makes it more clear: given the choice, workers mostly don't want to be part of a union.
So why not remove the choice?
"Labor unions want the PRO Act to stop plummeting membership and increase revenue from dues," says Sean Higgins, a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank. He's also the author of a new report that digs into the depths of the PRO Act, concluding that the legislation "empowers unions at the expense of workers."
Backers of the PRO Act say the bill is about empowering workers. In a joint op-ed published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shortly before last year's presidential election, Biden and Trumka argued that the PRO Act was necessary to "dramatically enhance the power of workers to organize." They touted aspects of the legislation to beef up the NLRB's authority to "actively encourage collective bargaining."
But if workers were as eager to join unions as Trumka and Biden seem to think, they wouldn't need a powerful federal bureaucracy to encourage that outcome, Higgins argues. Less than 7 percent of American workers are members of a union right now, down from a high of 35 percent in the 1950s.
What's happened in recent decades? Unionization hasn't been outlawed. The NLRB wasn't abolished. But faced with more economic opportunities and an increasing number of states passing laws that free workers from being required to join a union to hold certain jobs, workers have voluntarily opted out of unionization.
The PRO Act is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for unions to stomp out those trends. By duplicating California's disastrous rules that significantly narrow the definition of independent contracting work, the bill would smother workers' flexibility to set their own hours. By forcing employers to turn over private information about their employees, the bill would invade workers' privacy. And by giving the NLRB the power to overturn the democratic results of workplace union elections in some circumstances, the bill would allow unions to "win" elections they'd actually lost.
Perhaps most significantly, given Biden's expensive infrastructure spending dreams, the passage of the PRO Act would significantly hinder the completion of large-scale infrastructure projects, as Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, an industry group, has warned.
The PRO Act isn't really about empowering workers or changing the dynamics of the American workplace or building modern infrastructure. It's about directing federal power and resources to boost flagging labor unions, which have invested huge sums of money in the political system to get to this moment.
"Federal labor policy should be aimed at maximizing worker freedom," says Higgins, "not growing union power."