Democrats and their labor allies are gearing up for a 2020 fight against business groups over legislation to protect workers’ rights to unionize.
The Democratic-controlled House is voting Thursday on the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act). The bill is dead on arrival in the Republican Senate, but it’s seen as a critical messaging bill for Democrats and union groups looking to bring their supporters to the polls. And the bill is also mobilizing business groups who have railed against the measure as a wish list for Big Labor.
The bill would make it easier for workers to certify unions, change how employers classify workers, prevent workers from being denied rights because of immigration status, eliminate state right-to-work laws and block laws that protect employees from not paying union dues, among other measures.
The bill is one of the most comprehensive labor packages in years. And the fight over the bill will play out over the 2020 election, with high stakes for both sides.
For unions, it has been an important rallying cry with membership dropping in recent years.
“Working people across the country have been taking direct action together to address issues at work in a way that we haven’t seen for over 30 years. While they have made some gains, they have been held back by our broken, outdated labor laws,” Beth Allen, communications director at the Communications Workers of America, told The Hill. “The PRO Act restores balance to our system.”
Union groups have been pressuring lawmakers to back the bill.
“Restoring our middle class is dependent on strengthening the collective power of workers to negotiate for better pay and working conditions,” William Samuel, the AFL-CIO director of government affairs, wrote last week in a letter urging lawmakers to back the bill.
Allies say it is the most important labor bill in years, and lawmakers pressed House leaders last year to bring the bill up for a vote.
The House version was sponsored by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottAm I racist? The coronavirus crisis has cut the child care sector Lack of child care poses major hurdle as businesses reopen MORE (D-Va.) and has 218 co-sponsors, including three Republicans: Reps. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickBipartisan group demands House prioritize communities of color in coronavirus relief bill Fitzpatrick to face Democrat Christina Finello in key Pennsylvania House race Key races to watch in Tuesday’s primaries MORE (Pa.), Chris SmithChristopher (Chris) Henry SmithNY, NJ lawmakers call for more aid to help fight coronavirus Stranded Americans accuse airlines of price gouging Lawmakers propose waiving travel fees for coronavirus evacuations abroad MORE (N.J.) and Jefferson Van Drew (N.J.), a former Democrat who switched parties last month.
The bill is seen as particularly important for Democrats’ hopes of retaking the Midwestern states where President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE won over rank-and-file union workers in 2016 even as their leadership backed Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE.
The bill has also been embraced by many of the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates. Among the 40 co-sponsors of the upper chamber’s version from Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee ranking member Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayA national testing strategy to safely reopen America Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress? The coronavirus crisis has cut the child care sector MORE (D-Wash.) are Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-Minn.), who are all running for president.
Warren included the bill in her labor plan released in October. Sanders’s own proposals, which aim to double union membership, also incorporate many of the PRO Act’s provisions.
“If we’re talking about growing wages, providing health care to all people, having a progressive tax system, the trade union movement must be in the middle of all of those discussions,” Sanders said at a speech to the International Association of Machinists in April.
Both former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE support the bill as well, according to their presidential campaign websites.
“Biden strongly supports the Protecting the Right to Organize Act’s (PRO Act) provisions instituting financial penalties on companies that interfere with workers’ organizing efforts, including firing or otherwise retaliating against workers,” Biden’s website reads.
Business groups, though, have also stepped up their fight against the bill, which they warn would be calamitous for employers.
“The unions are selling this as an answer to their organizing problems. It literally is every bad idea in employment policy we’ve heard about in the last 30 years,” Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told The Hill.
“The PRO Act is a grab bag of harmful provisions to small businesses and employees. It’s like the ghost of labor issues past,” said Matt Haller, the International Franchise Association’s (IFA) senior vice president of government relations and public affairs.
The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, which includes the National Retail Federation (NRF), the Chamber and the IFA, is pushing back against the bill.
“We’ve been engaged with our coalition partners, coordinating lobbying visits on the Hill, talking to Democrats and Republicans about the harm this bill would do to the workplace and how misguided it is. We’re all communicating with our grassroots and making sure that employers don’t take this for granted,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the NRF.
And even though the bill is unlikely to see movement in the Senate, it has become an important litmus test for those on both sides.
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“For decades, abusive employers have been able to violate federal labor laws with relative impunity, making it more difficult for workers to organize and negotiate for fair pay, benefits and working conditions,” the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees wrote in a letter to lawmakers last week urging their support.
“This is a key issue for us. We’re not going to give anyone a free pass on this just because it’s not going to become law. The business community is going to be looking to see who signs on to such a radical proposal, and that’s going to be on our score card,” said Glenn Spencer, senior vice president of the employment policy division at the Chamber.
Some questioned if the bill could spell trouble for vulnerable Democrats in typically Republican districts.
“Democrats are making some of their new members who flipped Republican districts walk a plank on this bill,” Freedman said.
A lobbyist who asked not to be identified also said Democrats should be cautious about the bill.
“I could see this becoming an issue politically for the DCCC Frontline Democrats in November,” the lobbyist said, referencing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s most vulnerable members.
But Rep. Andy LevinAndrew (Andy) LevinHouse members race to prepare for first-ever remote votes Warren, Levin introduce legislation for federal contact tracing program Johns Hopkins offering free class in how to become a contact tracer MORE (D-Mich.), vice chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, pushed back on the idea that the bill could hurt vulnerable Democrats.
“While corporate interests may attack Democrats for supporting workers’ rights, voters will not,” Levin told The Hill. “The PRO Act is a referendum about who supports workers and our rights to form unions and bargain collectively. This is a core part of our American freedoms of speech and assembly, and voters know this.”
Levin said that despite declining membership, polls show Americans “have a more favorable view of unions than they have in half a century.”
Both sides are looking to the election and beyond.
“Even though it’s not going to pass the Senate this year, it sets a precedent in place for Congress to come back to perhaps in the next Congress,” French said.
The fact leading presidential candidates have endorsed the bill “tells you this issue is not going to go away,” added Spencer.
Updated at 11:25 a.m.