Labor leaders, allies urge support for pro-union PRO Act in Washington

Democratic lawmakers circulate resolution draft seeking Legislature’s endorsement

PRO Act - Patrick Zastrow
Colectivo Coffee employee and union supporter Patrick Zastrow speaks Monday at a news conference to promote the PRO Act, which would strengthen labor rights for workers. He's flanked by Bill Franks, left, of the Dane County NAACP, and Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Patrick Zastrow was among more than 200 Colectivo Coffee workers who voted in March on whether to have a union represent employees at the chain’s 20 coffee shops in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, along with those working at its production facility, bakery and warehouse.

The vote came after months of anti-union campaigning by the chain’s owners and management — including required meetings with an outside anti-union consultant.

“These meetings used fear and intimidation tactics on workers under the guise of ‘just the facts,’ to try and convince us that we did not need a union,” Zastrow said Monday. Members of the union’s organizing committee were locked out of those meetings — unable to directly respond or rebut the messages from the consultant, he noted.

When ballots were counted the votes for and against a union were tied at 99 each. The company challenged 16 additional ballots. Employees are awaiting a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board on the final tally.

The union — the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) — is also accusing the company of violating labor laws by coercing and in some cases firing workers in order to discourage them from unionizing; the company denies the charges.

Wisconsin labor activists consider the episode an object lesson in the need for the Protect the Right to Organize Act — the PRO Act — which would provide the strongest reinforcement of labor rights since the National Labor Relations Act was passed in the Great Depression. The legislation has passed the House of Representatives and is now in the closely-divided Senate, where this week unions and their allies are aiming to push for passage.

Robert Kraig
Robert Kraig, executive director of Wisconsin Citizen Action. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

“There’s a realization … that this is a big social justice and social movement issue,” said Robert Kraig, executive director of Wisconsin Citizen Action, at a news conference Monday afternoon outside the Capitol called by his organization and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.

Making it easier for workers to form unions would raise incomes and expand benefits, said Kraig. “It would have the biggest impact on African American workers, Latinx workers, women, because they are the ones that are in the professions [that] do not get a living wage job, and they don’t get good benefits.”

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President Joe Biden has declared that workers should be encouraged to unionize. Biden believes that “having unions is in the public interest — it benefits most people,” Kraig observed. “The last president to do that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt” — who signed the National Labor Relations Act into law.

One provision of the PRO Act would ban employers from requiring workers to attend so-called captive audience meetings, such as Zastrow described at Colectivo, which are common when employers campaign to block unionization.

Zastrow, who spoke at the news conference, said the anti-union consultant would claim to workers “that we would be better off representing ourselves to ask for raises, increased benefits and better working conditions — something that many of us had tried already.”

He added: “The irony of a company paying an organization thousands of dollars to represent them to convince employees that they don’t need representation was not lost on me or my coworkers.”

Union activists and their allies say those campaigns amount to coercion, aimed at intimidating employees away from unionizing.

Stephanie Bloomingdale
Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner}

“We want to make sure that people have dignity on the job and that they have respect,” said Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Stephanie Bloomingdale. “And that when they want to form a union, they ought to be able to do that free of intimidation, free of these shady union busters coming in making millions and millions of dollars on breaking the will of workers who are simply coming together to have a voice in their workplaces.”

The PRO Act would also strengthen penalties for violating labor laws. “Right now, corporations, as a matter of doing business, pay the fine — and it’s too small or the recourse takes too long to matter,” Kraig said. “They’ll fire workers illegally, and then they’ll just take the minimal consequences of that years later.”

Another provision of the act would repeal the federal law that allowed states to pass so-called Right-to-Work laws, which weaken unions by forbidding contracts that require all workers who are covered by a union labor agreement to pay dues.

Originally passed in the South, “so-called ‘right to work’ laws are divisive and racist in their origins and intentions,” said Bill Franks, who chairs the Labor and Industry Committee of the Dane County NAACP. “The PRO Act is more than labor law reform — it is civil rights legislation. A union contract is the single best tool we have to close to close racial and gender wage gaps and to ensure dignity and due process for workers, regardless of where they were born, of who they are, and what industry they work in.”

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The PRO Act addresses only private-sector workers, not public employees, and so wouldn’t directly address the impact of Wisconsin’s Act 10, the 2011 law that stripped most union rights from public employees. A separate bill in the House, the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, would enshrine union rights for government workers.

PRO Act Sign
A sign supporting the PRO Act. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

In Wisconsin, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin has been a cosponsor of the PRO Act since it was introduced. Meanwhile, according to Bloomingdale, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson “has still refused to meet with the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, or anyone else in labor” to discuss the PRO Act.

Monday’s news conference was directed at increasing awareness of the legislation. It was also held to publicize a resolution that Democrats in the state Legislature have drafted for lawmakers to declare their support for the PRO Act.

Authors of the resolution, Rep. Chris Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. Bob Wirch (D-Somers) began circulating  a draft of the resolution seeking signatures from other lawmakers. Most of the Democrats in both houses have signed on. While Republican support would appear to be unlikely, Bloomingdale, along with Sinicki and Sen. Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville), who also took part in Monday’s news conference, said they would welcome any that they might get.

“It’s time that we as Wisconsinites got back to our progressive roots,” Sinicki said. “It’s time that we remember that this state in this nation was built on the backs of labor.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.