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House to Vote Thursday on Landmark Labor Bill

February 4, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

“We’re trying to get as much contact from constituents into their [congressional offices] as possible,” CWA Communications Director Beth Allen.

WASHINGTON—The House it scheduled to vote Thursday, Feb. 6 on a landmark labor bill that would greatly expand workers’ rights to form and keep unions, from outlawing the replacement of strikers to voiding state laws banning the union shop.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2019, sponsored by House Education and Labor Committee chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.), now has 218 sponsors—all Democrats except for three Republicans from the Philadelphia-South Jersey area, including recent party-switcher Jefferson Van Drew. All House members from the New York metropolitan area have signed on except for Long Island Republicans Lee Zeldin and Peter King.

“Unions are critical to increasing wages and creating an economy that rewards hardworking people, but special interest-funded attacks on labor laws have eroded union membership,” the Education and Labor Committee Democrats averred in a fact sheet on the bill. “In 1956, roughly one in every three workers were union members. After a decades-long effort to weaken and exploit toothless labor laws, just 10 percent of American workers are unionized today.”

The Communications Workers of America has led a pressure campaign that culminated in a national day of calling House members Feb. 4. “We’re trying to get as much contact from constituents into their offices as possible,” CWA communications director Beth Allen told LaborPress.

In Florida, CWA Local 3018 led a rally Jan. 16 outside the Orlando district office of Rep. Stephanie Murphy, one of the few Democrats who has not endorsed the bill. The Oregon AFL-CIO picketed the Salem office of Rep. Kurt Schrader on Feb. 3, with state federation President Graham Trainor saying his refusal to support the PRO Act “is inexcusable and we expect better from him.” Another Democrat not on board is Rep. Henry Cuellar of south Texas, whose primary challenger, Jessica Cisneros, was endorsed by the state AFL-CIO on Jan. 26. 

The bill’s chances in the Senate are on a par with the impeachment of Donald Trump, however. Introduced last year by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), it now has 40 sponsors, including presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. But not a single member of the Republican majority has signed on. 

The two top-ranking Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee denounced the bill as a “radical union boss wish list.”

The bill would expand workers’ ability to form a union by making it an unfair labor practice for employers to require employees to attend meetings designed to discourage union membership, and enable workers to choose union representation by “card check,” getting a majority to sign union cards, instead of by holding an election. If workers formed a union, employers would have to begin negotiations for a first contract within 10 days of its request for collective bargaining.

The PRO Act would also effectively end states’ so-called “right to work” laws and reverse the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, by authorizing contract agreements that allow unions to collect fair-share fees that cover the costs of representation, “notwithstanding any State or Territorial law.”

It would also prohibit mandatory-arbitration rules that prevent workers from participating in class-action litigation, let individual workers sue for harm caused by labor-law violations or unfair labor practices, and expand penalties for those violations, including interference with the National Labor Relations Board or causing serious economic harm to an employee. The Economic Policy Institute estimated last December that workers are fired or illegally penalized in almost 30 percent of unionization elections. Workers fired could ask the NLRB to issue an injunction reinstating them, instead of having to wait years for a court decision.

Another provision attempts to reverse the recent trend of companies hiring workers as “independent contractors,” who are excluded from labor-law protections for regular employees such as workers’ compensation and not allowed to join unions. It would set up a strict “ABC test” to hold that workers are employees unless they are genuinely independent business people performing a service that the company doesn’t regularly do.

The measure also would repeal the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947’s ban on “secondary boycotts,” which prohibits workers from going out on strike or boycotting an employer out of solidarity when they don’t have a direct dispute. That law prevented the New York building-trades unions from stopping work at Hudson Yards during the “Count Me In” campaign of 2017-18 against the Related Companies’ use of nonunion labor. The developer filed a complaint with the NLRB when Steamfitters Local 638 members briefly walked out to demand that it use union sheet-metal workers. 

Predictably, the PRO Act has drawn vehement opposition from business interests and far-right ideologues. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas J. Donohue called it “an attack on workers’ freedom” that would effectively nullify the 27 state “right-to-work” laws that “protect workers from being fired for declining to pay union dues.” The National Retail Federation trade group called it “the worst bill in Congress.” The anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum, which also opposes mandatory paid-leave laws, called it “anti-woman,” saying it would deny working mothers the flexibility that comes from gig-economy work.

Organized labor has a different concept of what “freedom” on the job means. “Working-class and middle-class families in the United States deserve income security and should be able to organize their co-workers to demand living wages and healthy working conditions,” the AFL-CIO said in a statement. 

International Association of Machinists International President Robert Martinez Jr. singled out the bill’s provisions to protect fledgling organizing campaigns. “The PRO Act is a crucially bold piece of legislation that modernizes federal laws and establishes a process for mediation and arbitration to help the parties achieve a first contract,” he said.

“For decades, abusive employers have been able to violate the National Labor Relations Act 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 said in a message urging members to lobby Congress. “The ‘PRO Act’ levels the playing field.”

February 4, 2020

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