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Pro-union bill draws 2020 battle lines

Democrats and their labor allies are gearing up for a 2020 fight against business groups over legislation to protect workers’ rights to unionize.

The Democratic-controlled House is voting Thursday on the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act). The bill is dead on arrival in the Republican Senate, but it’s seen as a critical messaging bill for Democrats and union groups looking to bring their supporters to the polls. And the bill is also mobilizing business groups who have railed against the measure as a wish list for Big Labor.

The bill would make it easier for workers to certify unions, change how employers classify workers, prevent workers from being denied rights because of immigration status, eliminate state right-to-work laws and block laws that protect employees from not paying union dues, among other measures.

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The bill is one of the most comprehensive labor packages in years. And the fight over the bill will play out over the 2020 election, with high stakes for both sides.

For unions, it has been an important rallying cry with membership dropping in recent years.

“Working people across the country have been taking direct action together to address issues at work in a way that we haven’t seen for over 30 years. While they have made some gains, they have been held back by our broken, outdated labor laws,” Beth Allen, communications director at the Communications Workers of America, told The Hill. “The PRO Act restores balance to our system.”

Union groups have been pressuring lawmakers to back the bill.

“Restoring our middle class is dependent on strengthening the collective power of workers to negotiate for better pay and working conditions,” William Samuel, the AFL-CIO director of government affairs, wrote last week in a letter urging lawmakers to back the bill.

Allies say it is the most important labor bill in years, and lawmakers pressed House leaders last year to bring the bill up for a vote.

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The House version was sponsored by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and has 218 co-sponsors, including three Republicans: Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Chris Smith (N.J.) and Jefferson Van Drew (N.J.), a former Democrat who switched parties last month.

The bill is seen as particularly important for Democrats’ hopes of retaking the Midwestern states where President Trump won over rank-and-file union workers in 2016 even as their leadership backed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The bill has also been embraced by many of the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates. Among the 40 co-sponsors of the upper chamber’s version from Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who are all running for president.

Warren included the bill in her labor plan released in October. Sanders’s own proposals, which aim to double union membership, also incorporate many of the PRO Act’s provisions.

“If we’re talking about growing wages, providing health care to all people, having a progressive tax system, the trade union movement must be in the middle of all of those discussions,” Sanders said at a speech to the International Association of Machinists in April.

Both former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden support the bill as well, according to their presidential campaign websites.

“Biden strongly supports the Protecting the Right to Organize Act’s (PRO Act) provisions instituting financial penalties on companies that interfere with workers’ organizing efforts, including firing or otherwise retaliating against workers,” Biden’s website reads.

Business groups, though, have also stepped up their fight against the bill, which they warn would be calamitous for employers.

“The unions are selling this as an answer to their organizing problems. It literally is every bad idea in employment policy we’ve heard about in the last 30 years,” Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told The Hill.

“The PRO Act is a grab bag of harmful provisions to small businesses and employees. It’s like the ghost of labor issues past,” said Matt Haller, the International Franchise Association’s (IFA) senior vice president of government relations and public affairs.

The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, which is led by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and includes the Chamber and the IFA, is pushing back against the bill.

“We’ve been engaged with our coalition partners, coordinating lobbying visits on the Hill, talking to Democrats and Republicans about the harm this bill would do to the workplace and how misguided it is. We’re all communicating with our grassroots and making sure that employers don’t take this for guaranteed,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the NRF.

And even though the bill is unlikely to see movement in the Senate, it has become an important litmus test for those on both sides.

“For decades, abusive employers have been able to violate federal labor laws 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 wrote in a letter to lawmakers last week urging their support.

“This is a key issue for us. We’re not going to give anyone a free pass on this just because it’s not going to become law. The business community is going to be looking to see who signs on to such a radical proposal, and that’s going to be on our score card,” said Glenn Spencer, senior vice president of the employment policy division at the Chamber.

Some questioned if the bill could spell trouble for vulnerable Democrats in typically Republican districts.

“Democrats are making some of their new members who flipped Republican districts walk a plank on this bill,” Freedman said.

A lobbyist who asked not to be identified also said Democrats should be cautious about the bill.

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“I could see this becoming an issue politically for the DCCC Frontline Democrats in November,” the lobbyist said, referencing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s most vulnerable members.

But Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), vice chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, pushed back on the idea that the bill could hurt vulnerable Democrats.

“While corporate interests may attack Democrats for supporting workers’ rights, voters will not,” Levin told The Hill. “The PRO Act is a referendum about who supports workers and our rights to form unions and bargain collectively. This is a core part of our American freedoms of speech and assembly, and voters know this.”

Levin said that despite declining membership, polls show Americans “have a more favorable view of unions than they have in half a century.”

Both sides are looking to the election and beyond.

“Even though it’s not going to pass the Senate this year, it sets a precedent in place for Congress to come back to perhaps in the next Congress,” French said.

The fact leading presidential candidates have endorsed the bill “tells you this issue is not going to go away,” added Spencer.

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