After years of impediments for unions, legislation that would reform labor laws and provide workers with more power to organize is making headway in Congress. The U.S. House of Representatives on March 9 passed H.R.2474 – Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2019. Also known as the PRO Act, the legislation is considered by many to be the most wide-ranging, pro-worker rewrite of labor law since the original National Labor Relations Act of 1935. It previously was approved by the House in 2020, but the then Republican-controlled Senate failed to take it up. The House passed it again early last month with a vote of 225-206, largely along party lines. Five Republicans voted for the bill, while one Democrat opposed it.
The PRO Act includes a slew of provisions that proponents say will make it easier for workers to form unions, conduct strikes as a last resort, and bargain for better wages and working conditions. Should it eventually become law, the PRO Act would:
- Expand various labor protections related to employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain in the workplace.
- Address the procedures for union representation elections.
- Modify the protections against unfair labor practices that result in serious economic harm such as the discharge of an employee.
- Further prohibit employers from taking adverse actions against an employee, including employees with management responsibilities, in response to that employee participating in protected activities related to the enforcement of the prohibitions against unfair labor practices (i.e., whistleblower protections).
In addition to the foregoing, the bill specifies procedures for adjudicating complaints, including filing requirements, criteria for making determinations of violations, types of available relief, evidentiary guidelines, and judicial review of NLRB determinations. The measure generally establishes penalties and permits injunctive relief against entities that fail to comply with NLRB orders and creates a private right of action for employees to bring claims against employers interfering with employees’ rights to organize or join a labor organization.
Additionally, the bill modifies the reporting requirements for employers engaged in arrangements with third parties to persuade employees not to organize. Specifically, the bill narrows the scope of the exemption for arrangements that are considered legal advice or representation.
President Joe Biden, a close ally of labor, prior to the start of PRO Act debate on the House Floor, issued a March 9 statement that encouraged passage of the legislation, which in his view would dramatically enhance the power of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions. The president’s statement, in part, read as follows:
“As America works to recover from the devastating challenges of deadly pandemic, an economic crisis, and reckoning on race that reveals deep disparities, we need to summon a new wave of worker power to create an economy that works for everyone. We owe it not only to those who have put in a lifetime of work, but to the next generation of workers who have only known an America of rising inequality and shrinking opportunity. All of us deserve to enjoy America’s promise in full — and our nation’s leaders have a responsibility to deliver it.
“That starts with rebuilding unions. The middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class. Unions give workers a stronger voice to increase wages, improve the quality of jobs and protect job security, protect against racial and all other forms of discrimination and sexual harassment, and protect workers’ health, safety, and benefits in the workplace. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union. They are critical to strengthening our economic competitiveness.
“But, after generations of sweat and sacrifice, fighting hard to earn the wages and benefits that built and sustained the American middle class, unions are under siege. Nearly 60 million Americans would join a union if they get a chance, but too many employers and states prevent them from doing so through anti-union attacks. They know that without unions, they can run the table on workers – union and nonunion alike.
“We should all remember that the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say that we shouldn’t hamstring unions or merely tolerate them. It said that we should encourage unions. The PRO Act would take critical steps to help restore this intent.
“I urge Congress to send the PRO Act to my desk so we can seize the opportunity to build a future that reflects working people’s courage and ambition, and offers not only good jobs with a real choice to join a union — but the dignity, equity, shared prosperity and common purpose the hardworking people who built this country and make it run deserve.”
The March 9 statement was the president’s second such strong pro-union declaration in as many weeks. The first was a testimonial that said a union victory in the recognition vote at the 5,805-worker Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, would be vital not just to the workers but to the country.
“We need to summon a new wave of worker power to create an economy that works for everyone,” President Biden said. “We owe it not only to those who have put in a lifetime of work, but to the next generation of workers who have only known an America of rising inequality and shrinking opportunity. All of us deserve to enjoy America’s promise in full—and our nation’s leaders have a responsibility to deliver it. That starts with rebuilding unions…. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union. They are critical,” the president concluded. The PRO Act now heads to the U.S. Senate, where winning approval arguably will be impossible, unless Democrats in that chamber do away with or evade the filibuster, which would allow a minority of senators to hamstring it by requiring 60 votes for passage.
“We’re not going to let a minority in the Senate stop the PRO Act”, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka vowed in a video press conference with lawmakers and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights just before House debate on the PRO Act began.
“If people (lawmakers) know corporations are too strong and workers are not strong enough” economically, “and they make corporations stronger” anyway, by defeating the PRO Act, “they do so at their peril,” Trumka warned.
“And in an era of extreme polarization, nearly two-thirds of Americans—65%— approve of labor unions, so it’s not surprising workers would form unions if they were given the chance. That’s 60 million people knocking on our doors. The PRO Act would let them in.”