WASHINGTON — In a win for the labor movement, the House on Tuesday passed legislation that would reform labor laws and give workers more power to organize after decades of setbacks to unions.
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, also known as the PRO Act, was previously passed by the House in early 2020 but the Senate, then under Republican control, failed to take it up. The House passed it again Tuesday with a vote of 225-206, largely along party lines.
Five Republicans voted for the bill and one Democrat opposed the PRO Act.
The bill includes provisions to expand the definition of employee for the purpose of allowing independent contractors to join unions, upend so-called “right-to-work” laws by allowing bargaining agreements to require dues by all all employees represented by the agreements, and prohibit certain anti-union actions byemployers and retaliation toward workers who participate in organizing.
“Right-to-work” laws say employees can’t be forced to join a union or pay dues, and are favored by businesses who say the measures boost employment and worker income. But organized labor groups say they favor big business and inhibit workers’ rights to collectively bargain.
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“Strong unions lead to better pay, higher quality and more affordable health care, more secure retirement benefits, and workplaces that are safer – not just for union members but for all workers,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on the House floor.
“Unfortunately, in the 21st century, the right to organize has been eroded and weakened. As a result, many workers are stuck with no recourse to demand the better pay and benefits they deserve – or they are subject to poor working conditions that are harmful to their health and safety,” he said.
The bill would also give the National Labor Relations Board the ability to fine and penalize companies that do not comply with fair labor practices. It could also open the door for contractors at companies like Uber and Lyft to collectively organize.
The bill was supported by labor groups such as the AFL-CIO, who view it as the “most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression.”
Lane Windham, the associate director at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, said that the PRO Act would rectify employers’ ability to skirt longstanding labor laws. A former organizer with a clothing and textiles union working across the South, Windham said the bill’s provision to stop employers from holding “captive audience meetings” — where they coerce or require workers to sit through meetings to discourage organizing — is particularly important.
“The PRO Act would finally give workers the right to organize and form unions that they’re supposed to have had under law for years and years, but that employers have routinely stripped them of because employers have broken and bent labor law to such an extent that the current labor law is virtually meaningless,” Windham told USA TODAY.
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President Joe Biden put out a statement Tuesday voicing his support. The president said more empowerment of workers is necessary as the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit workers hard. He previously promised to be the nation’s “most pro-union president.”
“The middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class. … Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union. They are critical to strengthening our economic competitiveness,” Biden said.
On Feb. 28, he expressed support for Amazon warehouse workers’ push to unionize in Alabama, without explicitly naming Amazon or saying how workers should vote: “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” Biden said in a video posted on Twitter.
“As an organizer who spent two decades fighting for working people alongside unions, I am proud to be a lead sponsor of the PRO Act. Workers have carried us through this pandemic, and it’s long overdue that we put power back into their hands,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said.
The bill now faces what is likely to be staunch opposition from Republicans in the Senate.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the GOP leader of the House Committee on Education and Labor, argued on the House floor that the bill would take away the freedoms of entrepreneurs and individual workers, whom she argued built the middle class in America, rather than unions. She said individuals strapped by the COVID economy are taking advantage of the ability to work as independent contractors.
“It is unconscionable that Democrats would consider a bill that would take millions from workers’ paychecks, cost employers an estimated $47 billion in new annual cost, infringe on workers’ First Amendment rights, and put small businesses at further risk of closing their doors,” Fox said in a call with opponents of the bill on Monday.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, slammed Republicans who oppose the bill in a House floor speech, urging them to focus on supporting workers rather than cultural issues such as the controversy of certain Dr. Seuss books being deemed insensitive.
“Stop talking about Dr. Seuss and start working with us on behalf of the American workers!” Ryan said.
Contributing: The Associated Press