Congressional Democrats Are Pushing For The Biggest Labor Reform In Generations

The PRO Act could help boost unions on the decline, but only if Democrats can get around that filibuster.

Senate and House Democrats renewed their effort to enact sweeping reform to U.S. labor laws on Thursday, reintroducing a broad bill that would expand collective bargaining rights and help rejuvenate labor unions.

The package of measures, known as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, is a priority for progressive Democrats and organized labor. If it becomes law, it would be the most significant labor legislation enacted in the post-war period, and the most beneficial to unions in nearly 90 years.

With Democrats controlling both chambers, the legislation now stands a realistic chance of becoming law, but perhaps only if Democrats prove willing to get rid of the legislative filibuster. The bill would almost certainly garner no GOP support, meaning it could not clear a 60-vote threshold. Several moderate Democrats may hesitate to back it as well due to opposition from virtually all major business groups.

“Many union activists are hopeful it could breathe new life into the labor movement.”

President Joe Biden has signaled strong support for the PRO Act if it ever makes it to his desk, and many unions see it as a potential landmark victory of the Biden era. Union officials and top Democrats argue the package would go a long way in leveling a field that has tipped more and more toward corporations. Among other significant changes, the bill would:

  • Create monetary penalties against employers who try to illegally bust unions

  • Strengthen protections for workers who are wrongly fired during union organizing campaigns

  • Allow workers to take employers to court when they’ve broken collective bargaining laws

  • Make it easier for newly formed unions to secure their first contracts

  • Bolster workers’ rights related to strikes and boycotts

  • Override anti-union “right to work” laws that have now spread to a majority of states

  • Make it harder for companies like Uber to avoid unions by using “independent contractors”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), lead sponsor of the bill in the House, said Thursday that a “decades-long assault” on collective bargaining had “suppressed union membership and eroded America’s middle class.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the urgent need for Congress to protect and strengthen workers’ rights,” Scott said in a statement. “Over the past year, workers across the country have been forced to work in unsafe conditions for insufficient pay, because they lacked the ability to stand together and negotiate with their employer.”

The House passed a similar version of the bill early last year, mostly along party lines. Seven Democrats voted against it, and five Republicans for it. Democrats now have a slimmer majority after suffering losses in the 2020 elections.

Rep. Bobby Scott said the bill would address "a decades-long assault" on collective bargaining.
Rep. Bobby Scott said the bill would address "a decades-long assault" on collective bargaining.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

The Senate is a different matter. Democrats hold a bare 50-50 majority in which Vice President Kamala Harris would cast a tiebreaking vote. Just like with the $15 minimum wage, some moderate Democrats might view the PRO Act as too aggressive and withhold support. If all 50 Democrats did get onboard, they would still expect to face a Republican filibuster.

Democrats are already using a procedural maneuver known as budget reconciliation to move a coronavirus relief package with no GOP support, just as Republicans unilaterally pushed through the Trump tax bill in 2017. But under Senate rules such a strategy would be much harder to pull off with the PRO Act, since the implications of the bill might be deemed “extraneous to the budget.

The Congressional Budget Office previously estimated that the PRO Act would bring in about $39 million to the government in revenue over a decade, primarily through civil penalties on employers.

The last time unions saw the possibility of passing landmark labor legislation was during former President Barack Obama’s first term, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House. That effort, known as the Employee Free Choice Act, failed to make it through the Senate

While there are still major hurdles to passing the PRO Act, many union activists are hopeful it could breathe new life into the labor movement. Organized labor has generally been on the decline for decades, with about 1 in 10 workers in the U.S. now belonging to a union. That’s close to the lowest rate on record since the Labor Department started tracking in the early 1980s.

While there are many reasons for shrinking membership, many experts agree that one factor is the vehemence with which companies fight union campaigns, using tactics both legal and illegal. The PRO Act could make it harder for such employers to interfere with organizing efforts by unions. But ultimately unions would have to capitalize on it to grow their ranks.

“What it does is it opens the door for unions to do more organizing,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor policy expert at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “The PRO Act is a very important step, but the unions have to rise to the occasion.”

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