Several weeks ago, I walked around the Coal Creek Miners Museum in Rocky Top, Tennessee, where I was treated to an incredible talk by Boomer Winfrey. A geologist, former journalist and activist here in the Appalachians, Winfrey spoke of the Coal Creek War of 1891-1892 in which local miners clashed with the state militia in a series of violent armed conflicts involving the use of convicted labor.
More than two dozen minors were killed, but the cost of keeping the militia on the ground exceeded the state’s profits from hiring convicts. Shortly after, the program ended. The miners were victorious.
Not all labor organizations in rural America have been violent, but history has shown that workers are better when united. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, for example, organized the Delano grape strike in the late 1960s, bringing a victory to exploited farm workers in rural California.
Their success demonstrates the truth behind the lyrics to “Solidarity Forever”, the old work hymn. Union is our strength.
It is this inflexible truth that makes the Protect the right to organize – or “PRO” – Law such an exciting and important bill for rural workers. This bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives but remains blocked in the Senate, is “the most comprehensive worker empowerment legislation since the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935” according to Human Rights Watch. This would radically strengthen the hand of the working class and organized labor, leveling the playing field of the 21st century across rural America.
That the rural workforce benefits from the organization of work remains as true in 2021 as it was in 1965 or 1891. The rural economy has not recovered from the Great Recession, despite an influx of factories and warehouses into rural areas. These companies generally choose states with terrible protections for work.
Always, 45.3% of our workforce is engaged in health care, social services, education, retail or manufacturing – all areas that are prime for organizing or strengthening existing unions. From the second highest sector, agriculture, less than 1% of workers are unionized.
But we are only as strong as our solidarity with one another. This is why the PRO law would allow unions to override right to work laws. These laws with misleading names were adopted in 27 states, hampering workers’ attempts to organize for better wages and conditions. The PRO law would allow unions to collect dues from employees who benefit from union negotiations but refuse to pay their fair share of dues.
While it is welcome to end the right to work, it is pointless if bosses are continually allowed to interfere in union affairs. We saw that in Alabama with Amazon’s recent organizing efforts, where an official of the National Council for Industrial Relations ruled that the company illegally intervened in the vote for unionization. The PRO law would prohibit employer interference and influence in union elections.
Protecting workers from the exploitation of big business and bosses is at the heart of the Democrats’ union agenda. This legislation will be strengthen the National Council for Industrial Relations, authorizing it to impose fines on companies that retaliate against employees who organize. It would also be strengthen OSHA and the division of wages and hours – better ensure that rural workers are paid appropriately for work carried out in safer conditions.
The ability to organize on an equal footing, without corporate interference, has a real impact on the well-being of our employees. Non-unionized workers earn 81 cents for every dollar earned by a trade unionist. Unionized workers are almost 25% more likely to have health insurance benefits. They have more job security than their non-union peers. They have strength in numbers which can only come from collective bargaining.
In an economy that favors bosses and big business, unions give workers recourse to management abuse. The results speak for themselves; in 2018, Service Employees International Union Local 503 negotiated a 14 percent pay rise with an additional 5 percent cost of living increase for its members in rural Oregon.
Considering the benefits for the American working class, it is no surprise that a majority of Americans support the PRO Act. Even West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin – a usual thorn in the side of Progressive Democrats – approved it.
Rural America is ready to get down to business, but we deserve a fair deal. Unions are our best way to get it, and the PRO Act has been our unions’ best defense for almost 100 years. The PRO law would be a boon for unions and a boon for work in rural America.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The Independent, Newsweek, Business Insider and elsewhere. He currently lives in eastern Tennessee