May 13, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
As our economy recovers from the financial reckoning that the COVID-19 pandemic had wrought, we cannot forget that it has impacted minorities the hardest. According to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, African Americans were the first to lose their jobs and businesses and will be the last to be rehired. With President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package, the United States is on the verge of making one of the largest investments in America’s economy in recent history, but the Protecting the Right to Organize Act has the potential negate any positive economic benefits and hurt minority contractors and workers.
The PRO Act seeks to boost the number of dues-paying union members and increase union leverage. But it harms workers, small and local businesses, and average consumers in the process. The bill eliminates right-to-work protections, which would force millions of American workers to surrender part of their paychecks to labor bosses as a condition of their employment. Business owners would have to comply with union demands, no matter the cost to them, or shut down.
If the PRO Act becomes law, Congress may be increasing union density at the expense of minority contractors. The National Black Chamber of Commerce has found that 98 percent of all Black and Hispanic-owned construction companies are nonunionized and that increases in union labor leads to lower African-American employment. If unions increase their membership and leverage, they will be able to crowd out minority-owned businesses and contractors who are not unionized. During this unprecedented time of economic turmoil and civil unrest, we should be doing everything we can to support these minority-owned businesses and workers, not boosting the earnings of labor bosses.
Some unions are facing class-action lawsuits alleging racial discrimination and at least one construction union has come under fire amid allegations that minority union members are routinely receiving less work than their white counterparts. Another independent report found “appalling diversity statistics” in trade unions and that apprenticeship programs, a key pathway for trade employment, are predominantly white. Census data also shows in that in New York, African-American union members in the construction industry make 20 percent less than white union workers. Taken all together, it is hard to see how unions are actually helping minorities in the construction industry.
One of the most dangerous provisions of the PRO Act is its changes to the National Labor Relations Act and the definition of an independent contractor. The bill would implement California’s “ABC test,” which makes it very difficult to qualify as an independent contractor. Millions of American workers would either be reclassified as employees or lose their job, and workers would lose the freedoms that they have sought by pursuing independent work. This would drastically impact the gig economy and limit the opportunities for minority contractors to make a living.
When California was considering implementing this “ABC test” with AB5, the California Black Chamber of Commerce blasted the move and said self-employment “has become the gateway to independence and self-employment for African Americans.” By making it difficult to become an independent contractor, the PRO Act would effectively deny many people, including African Americans, a pathway to success that has long been the hallmark of the American experience — entrepreneurship. Instead of encouraging individuals to start their own businesses, the PRO Act would force many would-be entrepreneurs to continue working for others.
COVID-19 has hit everyone hard, but it is hit minorities the hardest. Right now, lawmakers should do everything in their power to help support minority workers and businesses, not union bosses. By increasing union power and limiting independent contractors, the PRO Act would be a major blow to minority workers who are just trying to survive. Biden and Congress should focus on ways to help minority-owned businesses and minority contractors, not on putt us out of business and our employees out of work.
Roger Bartlett is president of Affordable Concrete and a certified Minority Owned Business Enterprise (MBE) contractor.
Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.