A key Senate Democrat hinted Wednesday that he would back his party’s effort to overhaul labor law and boost union membership through landmark reforms.
Sen. Mark Kelly (Ariz.) told HuffPost that he supports “the overall goals” of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, and that he’s open to using budget reconciliation rules to pass parts of it.
The bill is the most ambitious attempt to reform collective bargaining in generations. So far, Kelly has been one of just a handful of moderate Democrats who have not signed on in support of it. The senator said his thinking evolved after speaking with employers and workers in Arizona.
“I would like to see some changes,” Kelly added. “I do have some concerns with the legislation, specifically things about who qualifies as an independent contractor. Sometimes employers often use that to their advantage. In other cases, I do think people should be able to be independent contractors.”
Democrats do not currently have enough backing to push the PRO Act through in its entirety, but budget reconciliation may provide an avenue for one or more crucial pieces to be implemented on a party-line vote. Kelly’s support would be essential to such an effort.
One critical measure in the PRO Act that Democrats believe could pass under reconciliation rules is monetary penalties for employers who illegally bust unions.
Under current law, the penalties for what are known as unfair labor practices are so weak that there’s little incentive to follow the law. For instance, if an employer is found to have illegally fired a worker for trying to organize a union, the employer generally just has to pay back wages to the worker, minus any wages the worker made elsewhere since he was canned.
Many employers that violate the National Labor Relations Act merely have to post a notice in the workplace acknowledging they ran afoul of the law.
The PRO Act would increase the costs of law-breaking substantially: Each unfair labor practice would come with a civil fine of up to $50,000. Unions hope such a measure would alter the organizing landscape by pressuring employers not to retaliate against union supporters or bargain in bad faith over union contracts.
Many Democrats are confident those fines could pass under reconciliation rules because they raise money for the federal government. In order to comply with reconciliation, a proposal must significantly impact federal spending and revenue.
“Depending on how it’s done, I’m not necessarily opposed to that,” Kelly said when asked about passing parts of the bill via reconciliation.
The PRO Act in its entirety would do far more than just increase penalties for union-busting. It would nullify “right to work” laws that are now on the books in a majority of states; it would make it easier for newly unionized workforces to secure a first contract; and it would strengthen the right to strike and boycott, among other measures.
One of the most contentious elements is how the law would extend collective bargaining rights to “independent contractors” who are not employees, a provision Kelly said he is concerned by. Unions have said they want to pass the law in its entirety, but the PRO Act’s Democratic backers may be willing to set aside such pieces for now if it means getting other parts of the bill through reconciliation.
Since being elected to the Senate in a 2020 special election, Kelly has sought to cultivate a centrist persona, joining other moderate senators in drafting bipartisan infrastructure legislation and declining to take a firm position on eliminating the filibuster. He faces reelection next year, and a number of Republican candidates have already started lining up to challenge him.
However, Kelly has also taken positions in the Senate that have raised eyebrows for a Democrat who represents a GOP-heavy state like Arizona, such as his vote to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 earlier this year. His move to embrace that effort, as well as the goals of the PRO Act, stands in sharp contrast to Arizona’s senior Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema, who doesn’t face reelection until 2024. Sinema and Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) are the remaining Democratic holdouts to advancing the legislation.