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The House Just Passed the Most Sweeping Labor Legislation of This Generation

The filibuster stands in the way of the law that makes it easier for unions to form and exist.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic lawmakers speak outside the West Wing on February 5, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

On Tuesday night, the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, sweeping legislation that the labor movement has championed as the most vital pro-union legislation in decades.

The House passed the legislation 225-206, with one Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, voting against and five Republicans voting in favor. The House had previously passed the PRO Act in 2020 when it was introduced, but Republicans refused to bring it up in the Senate. Now, with Democrats narrowly controlling the Senate (with the vice president’s tie-breaking vote), the bill will likely be introduced but is unlikely to pass due to the filibuster.

“I believe every worker deserves a free and fair choice to join a union — and the PRO Act will bring us closer to that reality,” said President Joe Biden on Tuesday. “I urge Congress to send it to my desk so we can summon a new wave of worker power and create an economy that works for everyone.” Union groups like the AFL-CIO have come out strongly in favor of the legislation.

Labor activists celebrate the PRO Act because of its pro-union, pro-worker proposals. First, it would clear the path for employees to form a union by implementing civil penalties for companies that fire union organizers. It’s currently illegal for companies to do so, but companies do it anyway because they can get away with it, and because the current penalty under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is only that they must rehire the worker and pay them their lost pay — the regular cost of business.

The practice is so commonplace that an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report from 2019 found that one in five union election campaigns involve an employee illegally fired for union activity. The PRO Act seeks much harsher penalties on companies who do this with the goal of actually enforcing the law.

The PRO Act would also outlaw tactics that companies commonly use to delay the union process, like refusing to recognize the union and forcing workers to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It also makes mandatory anti-union meetings held by employers illegal. The PRO Act would financially strengthen unions by overriding state “right-to-work” laws that seek to weaken unions by allowing employees to reap the benefits of unions without paying dues or being union members.

Touching on an increasingly urgent topic, the PRO Act would also allow independent contractors, such as Uber drivers, to unionize alongside employees. Last year’s passage of Proposition 22 in California solidified companies’ ability to employ gig workers without having to treat them as employees. The legislation was, as Robert R. Raymond wrote for Truthout, “perhaps one of the most significant setbacks to labor rights in recent history.”

The PRO Act could help to remedy many other problems that the U.S. is currently facing on labor rights. Union membership has been declining since the 1960s — and as union membership has declined, the share of wealth owned by the top 10 percent has gone up precipitously. “Labor law is broken,” as The New York Times wrote last year, partially because Republicans like Ronald Reagan, alongside corporations, have sought loopholes and means to exploit the shortcomings in the NLRA over the past decades. The last time union membership peaked was 1956, when 33 percent of American workers were in a union, according to EPI. In 2020, that number was down to 10.8 percent.

Progressive and Democratic lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) celebrated the House passage of the PRO Act while calling for the Senate to take up the legislation as well. “The Senate must now take up the PRO Act,” tweeted Sanders. “The trade union movement is the last line of defense against a billionaire class that won’t be satisfied until they have it all.”

Biden’s endorsement of the bill, and his recent remarks supporting the Amazon union organizers in Alabama, is significant, organizers say. “All of us deserve to enjoy America’s promise in full — and our nation’s leaders have a responsibility to deliver it,” said Biden in a statement supporting the PRO Act. “That starts with rebuilding unions. The middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class.”

The Senate filibuster is the law’s biggest unbreachable hurdle, and members of Congress like Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) said that, “We should abolish the filibuster and pass the PRO Act” on Tuesday. Though a small share of House Republicans voted for the bill, it’s near-impossible for Democrats to get enough Republican votes in the Senate to pass the 60-vote threshold set by the filibuster.

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