House Democrats have approved a bill that would provide protections for workers trying to organize, a measure that is the labor movement's single biggest legislative priority in this Congress.
The bill passed Tuesday with a 225-206 vote, with five Republicans joining Democrats in favor of it. The bill is unlikely to advance in the Senate, given a lack of Republican support for the legislation.
Union leaders say the Protecting the Right to Organize Act — PRO Act — would finally begin to level a playing field they say is unfairly tilted toward big business and management, making union organizing drives and elections unreasonably difficult.
"The PRO Act would protect and empower workers to exercise our freedom to organize a bargain," Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, told NPR in a recent interview. "It's a game changer. If you really want to correct inequality in this country — wages and wealth inequality, opportunity and inequality of power — passing the PRO Act is absolutely essential to doing that."
The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House when it was introduced last year, but it was never taken up by the then-GOP majority Senate. This time, Democrats narrowly control the Senate, but not by enough votes to overcome a filibuster, which means the measure is likely dead once again.
President Biden — a close ally of labor who earlier this month came out forcefully in support of Amazon workers' union drive in Alabama — backs the legislation.
"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," Biden said in a statement on Tuesday. "They know that without unions, they can run the table on workers — union and non-union alike."
Big business groups are lined up against the measure.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the act would "undermine worker rights, ensnare employers in unrelated labor disputes, disrupt the economy, and force individual Americans to pay union dues regardless of their wishes."
The National Retail Federation has called it "the worst bill in Congress."
Here are five provisions in the PRO Act:
1. So-called right-to-work laws in more than two dozen states allow workers in union-represented workplaces to opt out of the union, and not pay union dues. At the same time, such workers are still covered under the wage and benefits provisions of the union contract. The PRO Act would allow unions to override such laws and collect dues from those who opt out, in order to cover the cost of collective bargaining and administration of the contract.
2. Employer interference and influence in union elections would be forbidden. Company-sponsored meetings — with mandatory attendance — are often used to lobby against a union organizing drive. Such meetings would be illegal. Additionally, employees would be able to cast a ballot in union organizing elections at a location away from company property.
3. Often, even successful union organizing drives fail to result in an agreement on a first contract between labor and management. The PRO Act would remedy that by allowing newly certified unions to seek arbitration and mediation to settle such impasses in negotiations.
4. The law would prevent an employer from using its employee's immigration status against them when determining the terms of their employment.
5. It would establish monetary penalties for companies and executives that violate workers' rights. Corporate directors and other officers of the company could also be held liable.