Opinion: PRO Act will bring equity to Virginia’s immigrants

As the son of an immigrant and chair of the Latino Caucus of the Virginia General Assembly, it has always been my priority to fight for policies that strengthen Virginia’s vibrant immigrant communities and provide people with opportunities to achieve the American dream.

 With that in mind, I strongly disagree with Michel Zajur’s Aug. 12 argument (Op-Ed: PRO Act would harm Virginia’s Hispanic community) that passage of the federal Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would harm Latino workers and business owners. Much to the contrary, the PRO Act would institute long-overdue reforms to our nation’s outdated labor laws in order to rebuild the balance of power between large corporations and working Americans.

 Weak labor protections result in the exploitation of workers in many different industries, especially immigrant workers. Wage theft is rampant on construction sites where workers are misclassified as “independent contractors” to deprive them of overtime pay, workers’ compensation coverage, and safe working conditions. Low-wage service sector workers who try to organize unions have been threatened and fired, yet our antiquated labor laws impose no penalties on corporations who interfere with worker organizing.

 The PRO Act will protect the right of workers to join unions and engage in collective bargaining and penalize companies that obstruct union organizing. It will also allow so-called “gig economy” workers to bargain for better pay, benefits and working conditions. Most importantly, it will eliminate the so-called “right-to-work” laws passed in the Jim Crow era that are designed to weaken worker rights and keep wages low.

 Latino workers covered by union contracts are paid 35% more than their non-union peers. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan. 22). They have better health care, family and medical leave, and retirement security. In addition to higher wages, unions give workers dignity, a voice on the job and a seat at the table. The decline in unions in this country is directly related to the growth in income inequality, which disproportionately affects immigrants and people of color. If we do not protect the right to organize, many of our immigrant families will continue to be stuck living paycheck-to-paycheck, working multiple jobs just to survive.

 A recent poll shows that Virginia voters overwhelmingly support the PRO Act by a 65% to 22% margin. (Hart Research Associates). Virginians understand that we can be the No. 1 state in the nation for business and the No. 1 state in the nation for workers. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

 Here in Virginia, our Democratic majority will continue to build an economy that is good not only for business, but for working families as well. A critical part of this agenda is expanding worker rights and building upon our strong work of the past two years from increasing the minimum wage to collective bargaining to project labor agreements. Along those lines, among other things, I will continue to fight for paid leave improvements and a repeal of Virginia’s misnamed “right-to-work” law that deprives workers of the right to join with their co-workers in strong unions.

 We need Congress to do its part on the federal level to bring opportunity and fairness to workers and to rebuild our middle class. Congress must pass the PRO Act.

 Del. Alfonso Lopez represents the 49th House District, which includes parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties. He serves as the majority whip of the House Democratic Caucus, is the founder of the Virginia Latino Caucus and chairs the Virginia Small Business Commission.