Starbucks employees and supporters in Buffalo, N.Y. react after voting to unionize last year. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex) Starbucks Union Victory in NY
Starbucks employees and supporters in Buffalo, N.Y. react after voting to unionize last year. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

The PRO-Act passed the US House in March, and every NC Republican member of Congress voted against it

North Carolina makes it difficult for unions to fight for better wages or prevent indiscriminate firing, but a bill passed by the US House this year would be a “a game changer for North Carolina workers,” the state’s largest union association says.

The bill, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, would, among other things, make it easier for unions to collect dues and bar employers from retaliating against efforts to unionize. 

The bill is a “generational opportunity to make America’s economy and democracy work for working people again,” MaryBe McMillan, the president of the North Carolina State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, (NC AFL-CIO) said in February when the bill was reintroduced. (This is not the first time the bill has been brought up in Congress.)

“The PRO Act does that by ending misleading and racist ‘right to work’ laws and creating meaningful consequences for employers that retaliate against workers for simply exercising their right to organize,” McMillan said.

“All working people should have the freedom to join together in unions and collectively negotiate for better, safer working conditions.”

The bill passed the House along party lines in March, and has moved to the Senate where it has not yet been scheduled for a vote. 

All of the state’s Democratic members of Congress voted for the bill and all eight Republican members of Congress voted against it.

What Would Change in NC?

If it passes the Senate, the bill would bring pretty sizable change to North Carolina, a state unfriendly to unions for several reasons. 

North Carolina is a right-to-work state, meaning that any existing union that has a collective bargaining agreement with a company cannot require new employees to join the union or to pay dues whether they join or not. 

The biggest thing the PRO Act would do: override this state law.

Unions depend on dues to be able to pay for what it takes to enforce their contracts with companies and to fight for workers who feel they’ve been wronged. Without a steady dues structure, the union can struggle to do what it’s there to do. The Pro-Act would ensure that unions with collective bargaining agreements in North Carolina could charge the dues they need to operate.

This would only apply to private companies in the state, however, because North Carolina also bars government agencies from forming these collective bargaining agreements with unions. Government employees can’t fight for better wages, employer-friendly health insurance rates, or protections against indiscriminate firing, and this would not change. 

While the PRO-Act would prevent bosses from firing employees over efforts to unionize, it would not change state law that allows employers in North Carolina to fire any employee at any time for any other reason, which means a union here would still have no power to contest a standard firing.  

But while the legislation would not remove all of the big obstacles to unions in the state, it would make it easier for employees to join their union and for the unions to operate on their behalf. 

The bill would also:

  • Bar employers from coercing employees into voting against unionizing or even requiring workers to attend meetings designed to discourage union membership.
  • Prevent bosses from retaliating against employees who participate in any union activity. 
  • Stop companies from making prospective employees waive their right to join a union or join a class-action lawsuit against the company.

US Rep. Virginia Foxx, one of the only Republican members of Congress in North Carolina who routinely explains her rationale for a vote, issued a press release ahead of the vote saying that forcing employees to join or pay dues anyway would be the real coercion. 

The bill, she said, would “[expose] employees to union pressure and harassment,” and would require “employers to hand over workers’ private, personal information to union organizers, including home addresses, cellphone and landline numbers, personal email addresses, and more—without the consent of workers.”

The difference between the sides amounts to who should have more power: the company or the employees. If the PRO-Act gets a vote in the Senate, NC Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr are expected to vote “No.”