Major change to U.S. labor law clears House; faces headwinds in Senate

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — A bill that would be the largest change to U.S. labor laws in decades passed the U.S. House on Tuesday with the endorsement of President Joe Biden.

The legislation, known as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which passed the lower chamber 225-206 mostly along party lines, heads to the U.S. Senate, where it would face a steep uphill climb to secure the 60 votes for passage. The legislation died in the Senate in Congress' last session.

During debate over the package Tuesday, Democratic House members praised the package as a vital tool to help workers secure better wages, healthcare and working conditions after years of declining union membership and a growing gap between worker productivity and pay.

“For decades we’ve witnessed the loss of worker rights, the decline of private sector union membership and the erosion of the middle class. For 86 years, Congress has failed to pass any meaningful private sector labor law reform to reverse these devastating trends,” said Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, who formerly worked for the AFL-CIO. “But we can change that starting today.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said the bill will implement enforceable penalties for labor law violations and expand access to collective bargaining. “Unions are the bedrock of our nation’s prosperity and success,” she said.

Republican members repeatedly referred to the bill as the “pro-union bosses act” and argued it would give unions too much power in negotiations, make it harder for individuals not to join a union if they choose to, and force increased costs on employers.

Some Republicans, including Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, cited the corruption case against former United Auto Workers leaders, arguing the bill would increase the possibility of labor leaders taking advantage of their membership.

“Unions have and can still play a valuable role in our nation’s workforce,” Walberg said. “However, any reforms we make to our labor laws should put workers first. Unfortunately, the radical, partisan legislation we’re considering today grants unprecedented power to union leaders at the expense of workers.”

Labor experts have said the package would mark a sea change in federal labor laws after years of declining private-sector union membership.

If enacted, the bill would override state "right-to-work" laws that make it illegal to require workers to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment. Michigan is one of 27 states with a right-to-work law. 

It also would allow workers at franchisees, such as fast food restaurants, the ability to organize with their parent company, give the National Labor Relations Board the ability to levy fines up to $50,000 against businesses that break labor rules, allow gig workers and contractors to be designated as employees for collective bargaining, and bar mandatory meetings designed to convince an employee not to join a union. 

The bill would also allow unions to organize using a "card check" system that shows a majority of employees support unionization if the employer is found to have broken labor laws by interfering in the election and would require employers to give unions access to employees' personal information such as phone numbers and email addresses in the case of an election.

Biden promised during his 2020 campaign to be a strong ally to labor and offered his support for the PRO Act as one of the ways to accomplish that.

“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,” Biden said in a statement Tuesday.

Though the legislation enjoys support from the president, political observers say it's unlikely to reach him. The bill would need to clear a 60-vote threshold in the U.S. Senate, which would require the bill's proponents to secure the votes of all 50 members aligned with Democrats and an additional 10 Republicans.

Twitter: @rbeggin