WASHINGTON — House Democrats were poised on Tuesday to push through the most significant expansion of labor rights since the New Deal, advancing legislation that would neutralize right-to-work laws in 27 states and bolster workers’ power to organize after years of eroding clout.
The bill — the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO, Act — would amend decades-old labor law to shield workers seeking to form a union from retribution or firing, strengthen the government’s power to punish employers who violate workers’ rights and outlaw mandatory meetings that employers often use to try to quash an organizing drive.
It would also make it harder for companies like Uber and Lyft to classify workers as independent contractors, paving the way for a potentially substantial expansion in the pool of workers eligible to unionize.
The measure was all but certain to run into a brick wall of opposition in the Senate, where 60 votes would be needed to advance it past a filibuster and Republicans are broadly opposed. It was expected to pass the House with only a handful of Republican votes.
Democrats, led by President Biden, have embraced the bill as a centerpiece of their pandemic-era agenda. Longtime allies of organized labor, they believe that strengthening unions will provide both a powerful answer to festering economic and racial inequality and a means of wooing back white working-class voters who abandoned the party for former President Donald J. Trump.
“As America works to recover from the devastating challenges of deadly pandemic, an economic crisis and reckoning on race that reveals deep disparities, we need to summon a new wave of worker power to create an economy that works for everyone,” Mr. Biden said in a statement on Tuesday. It came just days after the president, an outspoken union advocate, had taken the unusual step of wading into a battle over unionization at Amazon.
Business groups and most Republicans fiercely oppose the measure, arguing that it is a giveaway to union leaders by Democrats looking for campaign donations. They contend that it would hurt workers, trample on states’ rights and decimate businesses at a time when thousands of small companies have folded because of the economic turmoil surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill is “radical, backward-looking legislation, which will diminish the rights of workers and employers while harming the economy and providing a political gift to labor unions and their special interests,” Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, said during the House’s debate.
The vote on the labor bill is one of almost a dozen that House Democrats are plotting this month to push forward a flurry of long-sought liberal priorities on gun safety, gay rights, immigration, voting rights and other issues that would reshape the economy and several aspects of American society. Each faces similarly long odds in the Senate, but Democrats are working to ratchet up pressure on Republicans ahead of the 2022 midterms while pushing conservative Democrats to agree to eliminate the legislative filibuster to achieve lasting policy changes.
“Heaven forbid we pass something that’s going to help the damn workers in the United States of America,” Representative Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio, bellowed across the House floor on Tuesday, addressing Republicans who lined up to oppose the measure. The G.O.P., he said, seemed more interested in tax cuts and moaning about “cancel culture” than helping American pocketbooks.
“Stop talking about Dr. Seuss and start working with us on American workers!” he added.
Strengthening unions has been the priority of Democrats and some Republicans in Congress for decades, as businesses, the courts and Republican-led states have slowly chipped away at labor protections. Plummeting union participation — just over 10 percent of American workers are in a union today, compared with a high of one-third in the 1950s — combined with stagnation in wages among the working and middle class has catapulted the issue to the top of Democrats’ agenda.
Labor rights proponents point to studies suggesting that unions help deliver higher wages regardless of race and gender, as well as safer work environments — issues that have taken on greater resonance with the public during the pandemic and after racial justice protests last year. Public polling suggests support for labor unions is rising, too.
“The PRO Act is a civil rights act,” Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in a recent interview. “If you have a union contract, everyone is making the same wages. There’s no differential between men and women, Black and white. There are protections for L.G.B.T.Q., for women. The law doesn’t always protect them, their contracts do.”
The bill would not in itself create unions or alter the right to organize. Rather, it tries to ease the path to unionization by strengthening existing unions, putting in place new protections for workers seeking to band together to negotiate as a bloc and establishing new penalties for employers that set out to bust up such efforts.
For example, the measure would deprive employers of some of their most potent tools in stopping an organizing campaign: calling mandatory meetings to dissuade employees from unionizing, as Amazon has done, and permanently replacing striking workers.
It would for the first time give real teeth to the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces labor law, allowing federal regulators to impose fines and other meaningful punishments on businesses that violate their workers’ rights. Studies suggest such violations have become widespread because employers face no real consequences for their actions. And wronged workers would get new rights to sue in court if the board declined to prosecute their cases.
Importantly, the bill also proposes changing how workers and their employers determine who is eligible to unionize to reflect the proliferation of contract or temporary workers who are doing the same work as full-paid employees. The provision would most likely result in tens of thousands of gig workers or more gaining the ability to organize.
The measure has alarmed business owners and their supporters, who fear it could undo decades’ worth of gains that have given them a powerful hand in unionization elections. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group, warned lawmakers in a letter opposing the bill that it would “eliminate any sense of balance” in federal labor law since it was codified in the New Deal of the 1930s.
“The PRO Act would impede the economic recovery through its many harmful labor and employment policies,” wrote Suzanne P. Clark, the group’s president. Of particular concern, she said, was the elimination of right-to-work laws in dozens of states that have barred workers from negotiating contracts that require all members of the work force — even those who do not join the union — to pay dues. The state laws have effectively constrained the resources available to unions and helped diminish their political clout.
But Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist who studies unions at Washington University in St. Louis, suggested Democrats’ legislation was less drastic than some Republicans were making it out to be.
“It’s not as if the United States is going to turn into Sweden any time soon when it comes to worker power,” he said. “This bill still doesn’t alter the fundamental workplace arrangements in any way. What it does is try to honor the letter of the National Labor Relations Act and let workers who want actual representation have a fair shot.”
Noam Scheiber contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.
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