The US House of Representatives has officially passed a comprehensive, bipartisan labor law, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Cheered on by the unions and disliked by the corporations, the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate through without a filibuster reform.
The bill was passed by 225-206 votes on Tuesday evening. The bill was backed by five House Republicans and co-sponsored by three Republicans: Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick from New York and Chris Smith and Jeff Van Drew from New Jersey.
If the PRO Act went into effect, it would be one of the most dramatic changes to U.S. labor law in decades. One of the main provisions of the law is a policy that overrides state right to work laws that weaken unions by preventing unionized workers from paying contributions. This would also result in tougher penalties for employers who interfere in workers’ union efforts.
If these penalties worked as planned, they would remove a major barrier to union formation, Stuart Appelbaum, The president of the retail, wholesale and department store union told Vox in a recent interview.
“It is the workers who face unequal conditions of competition when they try to assert their right to trade union formation,” said Appelbaum. “The employer has all possible means of intimidating employees and interfering with their desire to have a fair election.”
Finally, the bill would give independent contractors and gig workers the right to bargain with staff. This provision has been pushed aside by companies and independent contractors themselves who fear that it could limit their ability to continue working as a freelancer. However, House Democrats argue that the bill would not limit the flexibility of an independent contractor.
“It is a serious problem when employers misclassify workers as independent contractors to prevent their workers from organizing,” Bobby Scott (D-VA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, told Vox in a statement. “The PRO Act closes this gap by giving qualified freelancers and gig workers who are classified as employees the right to decide for themselves whether to form a union. Or not.”
Scott added, “Anyone who makes wild claims that this bill will end freelance work or reduce the flexibility of workers is wrong or deliberately misrepresenting the facts.”
The passage of the law comes at a time when membership in private sector unions is very low. Only 6.3 percent of private sector workers are union members Labor Statistics OfficeWhile the membership of workers in public sector unions is more than five times that number, it is around 34.8 percent.
In addition to this bill, union organizers however, see glimmers of hope. For one thing, a study by the Progressive Economic Policy Institute found that workers in unions were less likely to be fired than their non-union counterparts during the Covid-19 recession, suggesting greater union representation. On the other hand, President Joe Biden’s administration is far more friendly to organized labor than even previous democratic governments.
What is in the PRO Act explains
The PRO Act consists of many parts, but its main objectives are to make it easier for workers to join a union and to facilitate the existence of unions.
The biggest reform would allow workers to repeal the right to work laws that 27 states (plus Guam) currently have on their books. The PRO Act would allow employers and unions to enter into a contract that would allow unions to collect fair share fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining and the administration of the contract.
With the support of pro-business groups, right to work laws have spread from southern states to the midwest with a more robust union history since the Republicans turned state legislation en masse in 2010. The laws undermine unions in creative but debilitating ways: they do not prohibit employees from joining a union, but they do allow employees not to pay union dues or agency fees, which collectively help cover the cost of negotiating or negotiating a contract. As fewer workers pay contributions, it has been more difficult for unions to feed themselves.
As Alexia Fernández Campbell wrote for Vox in 2019:
The Economic Policy Institute, a left-wing think tank, writes a 3.1 percent wage drop for union and non-union workers after considering differences in cost of living, demographics and labor market characteristics.
In addition to the primacy of state laws on the right to work, the bill provides a number of other measures to strengthen trade unions, including:
It would approve “meaningful” penalties for companies and executives for violating workers’ rights and allow the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to evaluate fines for each violation. If a company takes revenge on an employee, the law requires the NLRB to immediately apply for an injunction to reinstate the employee while the case is pending. The bill gives the NLRB the power to enforce its own decisions rather than waiting for a decision by the appellate court. The bill would prohibit employers from requiring employees to participate in so-called “captive audience meetings” where the employer tries to dissuade employees from voting on union formation. The draft law facilitates initial contracts between companies and newly certified trade unions by requiring mediation and arbitration for the settlement of disputes. The bill would conduct an “ABC test” to determine whether independent contractors or freelance workers could qualify as full-time workers. While this has sparked some concerns that this legislation could harm freelance journalists or gig workers, Democratic advisors say the bill does not limit a person’s ability to freelance or contract with a company, it merely limits their ability negotiate with regular employees.
Although the bill was passed with three Republican co-sponsors, it is unlikely that Republicans in the Senate would get much, if any, support.
“The PRO bill is not and shouldn’t be political or controversial,” Republican MP Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican in the House of Representatives, told reporters Tuesday.
Although five Republicans ultimately voted for the bill, the vast majority of Republicans in the House opposed it. Most Republicans voted in unison with business and industrial groups that are firmly against unions.
“The bill would make radical changes to established law, restrict workers’ rights to privacy and threaten entire industries that have driven innovation, entrepreneurship and job creation,” said Kristen Swearingen, chair of the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace – a group , which represents 600 major industrial organizations, including the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Retail Federation.
The PRO Act, like many other bills the House will pass in the coming weeks, is likely to come to an end in the 50-50 US Senate. The bill is unsupported by Senate Republicans and can’t reach the 60-vote threshold to override the filibuster. There has been some preliminary discussion on how parts of the bill can be included in the Senate’s next budget reconciliation package, but the entire bill cannot go through the vote.
Without a filibuster reform in the Senate, the PRO bill is unlikely to hit Biden’s desk for the next two years. For this reason, some of the country’s largest unions, such as the AFL-CIO, are currently deciding whether to publicly support the elimination of the filibuster.
Biden is considered union friendly, but there is only so much he can do
Recently the White House released a video statement von Biden, who clearly advocates workers’ right to collective bargaining and points to an ongoing vote in Alabama to determine whether Amazon workers will unionize at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.
“Everyone knew what he was referring to,” said Appelbaum, president of the union that would represent Amazon workers if they unionized. “The only organization he was referring to was the Alabama organization, and the workers clearly understood what the president was saying.”
The Bessemer struggle has attracted national attention and could prove to be a crucial struggle for modern labor movements. Appelbaum said the PRO bill would give workers tools to defend themselves against Amazon intimidation, which urges its workers to vote against forming a union.
But aside from advocating for labor laws to empower unions, there is a lot that Biden can do from the White House to help unions grow. One of his early acts as President was the dismissal of Trump-appointed General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Robb; He appointed long-time NLRB attorney Peter Sung Ohr as Robb’s replacement.
This move was seen as an attempt to ensure that the Biden government and its agencies can enforce applicable wage laws and that their NLRB will be more union friendly. Labor historians have noted that Biden’s union statement is striking – both in terms of the strong backlash against employers who meddle in workers’ union attempts and in terms of timing in the middle of a crucial union vote.
“It’s basically unprecedented in American history,” Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island who studies labor rights, recently told Vox. “Even the FDR did not really intervene at the moment of a union election with a direct explanation for a specific group of workers.”
But ultimately, Biden still needs Congress to expand existing labor laws in the US. The House has taken the first step, but the Senate would likely need to get rid of the filibuster for this bill to have a chance to pass.