The House is set to vote Thursday on a sweeping plan to overhaul U.S. workplace law in a way that could grow union membership and rejuvenate an ailing labor movement.
With Democrats holding the chamber’s majority, the legislation ― called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act ― will likely pass but then face certain death in the GOP-controlled Senate. Even so, the bill could send a strong pro-union message to progressives and create a blueprint for ambitious labor reform if Democrats can reclaim all the levers of power in Washington.
Unions have been pressing the House’s leadership to move such a bill ever since Democrats took control of the chamber after the 2018 midterm elections ― a triumph fueled in part by labor’s electoral ground game. Some moderate Democrats from districts friendly to President Donald Trump may heed the business community’s call to vote against the measure, but House leaders are confident the bill will pass, especially with three Republican co-sponsors.
The plan would significantly increase the penalties for employers who try to bust unions; make it easier for workers to unionize after rounding up a majority of signatures in their workplace; weaken anti-union “right to work” laws; and expand workers’ rights to strike and boycott, among other major reforms. One of its top backers has been Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.
Such a bill would be the most significant labor legislation since Congress passed the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act that hamstrung unions and helped set the stage for a long decline in union membership. While roughly one in three workers belonged to labor unions in the 1950′s, that share has fallen to about one in 10, a historic low since the government started tracking such figures.
Union membership rates remain strong among government workers, but they are anemic in the private sector. Unions have long complained that employers face little consequence for snuffing out organizing drives with tactics legal or otherwise. Companies often hire “union avoidance” firms to dissuade workers from unionizing. The penalty for firing a pro-union worker ― if such retaliation can be proven ― is simply to rehire the worker and offer backpay.
The Democrats’ legislation would allow workers to sue in court when their rights are violated. It would make it easier to establish that one employer is a ”joint employer″ alongside another, helping some workers unionize in larger groups. And it would bar employers from holding what are known as ”captive audience″ meetings, in which workers are required to listen to an anti-union spiel from a boss or a consultant.
The legislation shares a lot in common with a new labor reform plan being passed around progressive circles called Clean Slate for Worker Power, spearheaded by Harvard University law professors Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs. While their plan goes much further than the PRO Act ― for instance, Clean Slate calls for worker representation on corporate boards ― Block and Sachs told HuffPost they see the Democratic legislation as an important first step in fixing a collective bargaining system that dates to the Great Depression and that unions say is broken.
“Folks are thinking in a bigger, bolder, more progressive way,” said Block, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that referees labor disputes. “It enables workers to see that their lives could really be different… rather than the smaller-bore fixes like we’ve tried in the past that didn’t work.”
The last major labor overhaul that Democrats were close to enacting into law was the Employee Free Choice Act, which sank during the 2009-10 congressional session despite the party controlling the House, Senate and White House. That bill ― the failure of which still embitters some labor activists ― would have allowed workers to unionize through a “card check” process bypassing secret-ballot elections.
The measure stalled in the face of a threatened filibuster by Republican senators and a handful of their Democratic colleagues.
The PRO Act has a wider reach than that failed legislation, and so has stirred up lobbying against it by the business groups even though it’s unlikely to become law anytime soon. Jeff Brabant, head of government relations at the National Federation of Independent Business, a lobby for small employers, said his group has “a whole host of issues” with the legislation.
For example, he pointed to the way the PRO Act would restore the right of workers to carry out “secondary boycotts,” punishing one employer for doing business with another involved in a labor dispute ― a powerful tactic outlawed under Taft-Hartley. Brabant said such boycotts would hurt his group’s members that supply or contract with much larger companies.
Even though the bill would hit a wall in the Senate, Brabant said his group has been urging House members to vote it down, saying they will have to answer to constituents who own small businesses.
“It’s a big deal in that it puts down a marker. If there were certain election outcomes in the future and we go back to a situation where there’s a unified [Democratic] Congress,” then it could become law, Brabant said. “There’s concern with the precedent of a voting record.”
That could turn out to be a persuasive argument for some moderate Democrats in GOP-leaning districts. Close watchers of the bill expect anywhere from eight to a dozen Democratic defections on the vote, including some freshman lawmakers concerned about hanging onto their seats in more conservative areas.
Still, the loss of those votes would not be enough to sink the bill, especially with a trio of moderate Republican co-sponsors who are expected to vote in favor: Reps. Jeff Van Drew (N.J.), Chris Smith (N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Penn.).
As The Intercept reported, some unions and progressive Democrats grew annoyed at how long it has taken for the bill to come to the floor for a vote, especially when the House gave Trump a victory lap by passing his new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The PRO Act would likely play well in pockets of the Midwest with strong union traditions, including areas that Trump peeled away from Democrats in 2016.
Seventy-six House Democrats sent a letter to House leadership last month pressing them to advance the bill. “It is unfortunate that since [the fall], no date for floor consideration has been announced,” they wrote. “We can and should pass it now.”