House Democrats rammed through the union-backed Protecting the Right to Organize Act Tuesday night on a mostly party-line vote. It’s said to be dead on arrival in the Senate, which is a good thing for American workers.

The bill’s name shows its pro-union bias. It would largely gut “right-to-work” laws, which permit workers to opt out of a union and not pay union dues if they so choose. This right was enshrined in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which gave states the ability to enact such laws. Twenty-seven states now have them, and workers in those states have the freedom to object to coercive unions in the most powerful way possible: the right to leave. The PRO Act would allow unions to collect dues from these men and women regardless of whether they formally join the union. This would be a serious infringement on personal liberty, and it would remove an important check on abusive union leaders.

The bill infringes on individual liberty in other ways as well. It would redefine when independent contractors can be labeled as employees, potentially reclassifying millions of workers in the gig economy. Union leaders say this would give these people, especially drivers for app-based ride hailing or delivery services, the right to organize — but companies say it would destroy their business model. California voters exempted such workers from a similar law via a referendum in November by a 59-to-41-percent margin. If deep-blue California doesn’t like this idea, it’s surely something most of the country wouldn’t like either.

The measure would also deliver a blow to fair union elections. Labor law since the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935 has allowed employers to require elections with secret ballots to show that employees truly want to be represented by a union. The PRO Act reduces this protection by forbidding employers from calling meetings at which they can present their views on unionization, and by allowing ballots to be cast off of company property. It’s not hard to see where this leads: Union organizers put the muscle on wavering employees not to attend employer meetings — and to vote “the right way” at union-staffed, off-site locations.

The bill is primarily a 1930s solution to a 21st century problem. Less-skilled workers have no doubt experienced stagnating or declining wages for decades. But unlike in the 1930s, when workers won the right to unionize and force their employers to bargain, the problem is not primarily one of employer greed.

Global free trade means U.S.-based companies have to compete against firms from other countries for consumers’ dollars. Unions often demand staffing rules and wage packages that effectively undercut those firms’ ability to compete. This simple fact is one of the major reasons unionization rates at U.S. companies have declined so much in recent decades. Private-sector unionization rates were at their highest in the mid-1950s, when the United States dominated the global economy. Today, only 6.3 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, roughly one-sixth what it was at its height. Many workers surely know that union “protections” would simply drive their jobs overseas.

Only a comprehensive economic reform can seriously address the decline in earning power among less-skilled workers in the United States. That approach would require creating tight labor markets at home by restricting illegal immigration and instituting a skills-based legal immigration program. It would also reevaluate global free trade and assess whether the gains to U.S. consumers are worth the loss for U.S.-based workers. An imaginative approach to trade could, for example, impose tariffs on goods from countries whose labor standards or wage rates are so much lower than our own that they place unfair pressure on U.S.-based employers. It could also levy an “exit tax” on companies that shift U.S.-based employment to countries with similarly low standards.

Without measures to limit immigration and global trade, the PRO Act would likely shift jobs elsewhere, or encourage firms to replace U.S.-born workers with immigrants who would find nonunion wages quite attractive.

New times require new ideas. Democrats have shown, both with the PRO Act and their spendthrift covid-19 relief bill, that their minds are still stuck in the 1930s. Art deco and telegrams are things of the past; so too should be the Democrats’ economic policies.


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a California referendum repealed a state's law requiring companies that hire "gig workers" as employees. That referendum exempted drivers for app-based ride-hailing and delivery apps from the law. This version has been updated.

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