WASHINGTON—The House voted Feb. 6 to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a bill lead sponsor Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) called “the most significant upgrade to U.S. labor law in 80 years.”
The vote was 224-194, largely along party lines. Five Republicans voted yes, while seven Democrats voted no, four of them members who won previously Republican seats in 2018. Independent Justin Amash of Michigan, a Tea Party Republican turned anti-Trump Republican defector, also voted no.
The bill, known as the PRO Act, contains multiple provisions intended to expand workers’ ability to organize and keep unions. It would outlaw “captive-audience meetings” designed to discourage union membership, and enables workers to choose union representation by “card check,” getting a majority to sign union cards.
It would also repeal two longstanding limits on unions from the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947: the provision banning “secondary boycotts,” strikes or boycotts in solidarity with a strike by workers at a different employer, and states’ authority to enact so-called “right to work” laws that prohibit unions from collecting fees from nonmembers they are legally required to represent.
Other provisions would prohibit the permanent replacement of striking workers, expand penalties for unfair labor practices such as firing union supporters, and set strict limits on when employers can define workers as “independent contractors” who are not entitled to workers’ compensation, overtime pay, or the right to join a union.
The House rejected several amendments introduced by Republicans that would have deleted the provisions allowing card-check unionization; overturning “right-to-work” laws; outlawing the replacement of strikers; and requiring employers to give unions employees’ contact information immediately after a representation election is ordered—a provision GOP members charged would amount to enabling unions to stalk the workers they’re trying to organize.
It approved by voice vote, two amendments intended to speed up representation elections sponsored by Michigan Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Brenda Lawrence.
“This bill will restore protections that enable workers to join a union and empower them to negotiate for the higher wages, better benefits, more secure retirement, and safer workplace they have earned,” United Food and Commercial Workers International President Marc Perrone said in a statement. “And thanks to strong enforcement measures, the PRO Act will hold corporations accountable for any violations of workers’ rights.”
However, the bill is extremely unlikely to pass the Republican-majority Senate, as it has not attracted a single GOP cosponsor. Republican opposition in the House was vehement. Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, denounced “the Democrats’ false narrative that the decline in union membership is hurting workers” and that “the only way to fix it is to expand forced unionism through coercive, socialist schemes like the PRO Act.”
She accused House Democrats of kowtowing to blackmail from the “most feared Big Labor union boss,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who the day before had said at a press conference with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that legislators who opposed the bill should “not ask us—do not ask the labor movement—for a dollar or a door knock…. We won’t be coming.”
Trumka had noted that “in more than 40 percent of all union organizing drives—employers break the law. They lie. They coerce. In some cases, they fire union supporters.” He added that the National Labor Relations Act has weakened so much since it was passed in 1935 that “an entire union-busting industry now works nonstop to block workers from exercising the freedom that the law is supposed to protect.”
On Twitter after the House vote, he called the bill “the most significant step Congress has taken to strengthen labor laws in the United States in 85 years.”
The White House issued a statement Feb. 5 recommending that Donald Trump’s advisers were recommending that he veto the legislation if it did pass the Senate. The memo largely repeated opponents’ talking points. It said the bill “would kill jobs and destroy the gig economy,” “violate workers’ privacy,” “restrict workers’ freedom of association” by making union dues compulsory, and impose “unnecessary and costly burdens on American businesses.” It said the administration was “willing to discuss legislation clarifying that unions do not need to represent workers who do not pay dues.”
“President Trump’s veto threat, though replete with inaccuracies and distortions, speaks volumes about who he is really fighting for,” Trumka responded.