Commentary: Alaska’s working families need the PRO Act

By Joelle Hall
For The Cordova Times

I don’t know about your family, but if you’re like my neighbors and friends, this hasn’t been an easy year. Many of us have lost friends and loved ones. We’ve lost hours at work. We’ve taken on extra costs to support family members who need it most and some of us have been sicker than we ever have been in our lives.

The pandemic has been catastrophic, it’s true, but it wasn’t all roses before, and ending COVID-19 won’t fix our broken economy. The truth is this: When I see folks in Fairbanks and Juneau, in Anchorage or the Matsu Valley, I wonder what kind of future we’re building for them. What kind of jobs will Alaska have to offer our young people?

The Alaska economy must do more than build a new Port of Alaska, new pipelines and new buildings. We have to do more than teach classes, nurse people back to health, serve food and service aircrafts. These jobs also have to be good enough to build and support lives and families, homes, and happiness.

The answer, I believe, is uniquely American. It’s unionism. Every single member of every single labor union in Alaska and all across America has a voice on pay, benefits, working conditions and much more. The workers and the boss work out their differences and agree to a contract that benefits both. Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work and will work when the Protecting the Right to Organize Act becomes law. Right now, some bad employers stall, harass and fire workers who try to form unions, and never end up agreeing to anything at the bargaining table. This is not what the authors of the original labor law, the National Labor Relations Act, intended to happen, and it’s definitely not what working people deserve. That’s why it’s time for a revival of workers’ rights.

The bipartisan PRO Act — thank you Congressman Young! — will update long outdated labor laws which were written for the jobs and economy of the early 20th century. Millions of occupations in today’s America hadn’t even been envisioned back then, and the rest would be unrecognizable because of the information and technology revolution.

The PRO Act has passed the U.S. House and is now in the hands of the Senate. And it is clear workers everywhere want it: 65% of Americans want unions to play a larger role in public life, according to a Gallup poll that’s been tracking union support for nearly a century. A recent poll found that 73% of voters — including 59% of Republicans — support the right to collectively bargain. And a very recent survey shows that nearly 60% of Americans want the PRO Act to pass.

Our Congressman, Rep. Don Young voted for the PRO Act because it would enforce laws that bad employers trample on today. The PRO Act has real, enforceable penalties for bad behavior and gives real solutions to hard-working people who play by the rules to get ahead.

The Bill of Rights doesn’t have an asterisk explaining that your rights stop when you go to work, and the U.S. Constitution doesn’t either.

Powerful corporations will say anything about the PRO Act, and most of what they say isn’t true. That’s because all they care about is more money and more power, and they don’t give a darn if you can support yourself and your family.

But your friends and neighbors do. Your colleagues do. And Rep. Young, the Dean of the House, does, which is why he voted for the PRO Act. We hope Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan will vote for it, too, because the PRO Act fits Alaska just right.

Ever since Alaska became a state, this has been a place where you could work hard for good pay, enough to build a great life. We have always been a union state because we understand that unionism and freedom go hand-in-hand. This isn’t a Democratic or a Republican thing. This is how Alaskans are made. With the PRO Act in place, more working people in Alaska will share in the wealth we help create and keep Alaskan families strong.

Joelle Hall, a veteran of the U.S. Army, is the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, Alaska’s largest federation of working people with more than 50,000 members. She lives in Peters Creek with her husband and children.