Congressional Dems advance pro-union reforms with an eye toward Nov. elections

Stock photo of auto workers by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

WASHINGTON — Buried under news about the Iowa caucuses, the president’s State of the Union address and the end of the impeachment trial is an upcoming vote on what could be the most significant labor reform legislation in a generation.

The U.S. House bill would strengthen protections for workers who organize for higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions. Importantly, it would bolster embattled unions in Ohio and across the country.

The measure, known as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, has 218 House cosponsors and is expected to pass this week. 

US Rep. Marcy Kaptur with Rep. Andy Levin and Rep. Tim Ryan
WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 29: U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) (2nd L) speaks as Rep.-elect Andy Levin (D-MI) (L) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) (R) listen during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The bill would “encourage the freedom of association,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) — one of the bill’s lead co-sponsors — told the Ohio Capital Journal. The goal is to ensure that all workers — including women and others in low-paying jobs — “have dignity and that they earn a decent wage for the work they perform and are not subject to exploitation,” she said.

Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, who introduced a companion measure in the Senate last year, said, “We cannot address inequality in this country unless workers get more power in the workplace, and this bill would help them do that.”

The bill has the support of the state’s four House Democrats; none of its dozen Republicans have signed on.

The bill isn’t likely to become law anytime soon, given the GOP control of the U.S. Senate and White House. But that doesn’t deter its backers, who want to send a signal about what Democrats would do if they had more power in Washington. 

“What it’s saying is that — were we to have the moment where we had a majority in both houses — that we would move the country in that direction,” Kaptur said.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, a coalition of unions, called for passage of the bill in testimony before a House subcommittee last year. “The PRO Act would do many important things, chief among them provide more substantial relief for workers whose rights have been violated … ensure a process for reaching a first contract once a union is recognized … and create a true deterrent, so employers think twice before violating the law.”

Business groups are opposed to the bill, which they say would destabilize workplaces, gut the gig economy and nullify “right-to-work” laws across the country.

“The proposal … is a litany of almost every failed idea from the past 30 years of labor policy,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce stated when the bill was introduced last year. It “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.”

House Republicans have called it a “union boss wish list.” 

It “merely doubles down on an antiquated worldview of the American economy and a coercive model of unionization that has failed to attract the support of American workers in the 21st century” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Education and Labor, and other Republicans said in a statement

Nationwide, about 10 percent of the nation’s workers are members of unions, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Public sector workers are much more likely to join unions than private sector workers, and membership rates are higher among black people, men and full-time workers.

The percentage of unionized workers is higher in Ohio, though the state has seen a sharp decline in union membership since recent decades, dropping from 21 percent in 1989 to 12 percent of the state’s 5.1 million workers last year. 

The decline also comes as heavily unionized sectors, such as manufacturing, transportation and public utilities, make up a smaller portion of the economy than they did in the past.

Unlike some of its neighbors, Ohio has not passed “right to work” laws that bar workers from being required to join unions to get or keep a job. That puts the state at a disadvantage, because it must compete against states that do have those laws in place, Kaptur said.

At least three Ohio Republicans — Reps. Jim Jordan, Warren Davidson and Brad Wenstrup — support federal right-to-work legislation.

Ohio U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that unions representing government workers could not force nonmembers to pay union fees, even though they might be affected by union negotiations. The decision closed off a key source of union revenue.

Worker rights ‘in name only’ 

Proponents of the House legislation say union membership would surge in the Buckeye State and across the country if it were to become law. 

A core provision would create meaningful penalties for corporations that violate worker rights or misclassify independent contractors.

Enacted in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act protects workers’ rights to unionize and collectively bargain but does not carry stiff enough penalties for employers who violate their rights through termination, threats or other forms of retaliation, according to Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington-based think tank.

Employers may receive orders to “cease-and-desist” illegal activities or be required to notify workers of their rights under the law, and those who fire workers for union support may be liable for back pay. But those remedies aren’t strong enough to deter illegal activity, McNicholas said. 

As it stands now, workers essentially have union rights “in name only” and, as a result, violations are common — and effective at suppressing unionization, she added. 

“A law is only as good as the teeth it has,” she said. “This bill would go a long way in correcting that.”

The bill would also strengthen collective bargaining rights; create mediation and arbitration processes between corporations and newly formed unions; streamline federal labor relations procedures and more. 

Such provisions would raise wages, increase access to supports that provide paid leave, health care coverage, and retirement savings, and create safer working conditions, according to EPI. Average workers covered by union contracts earn 13 percent more than those with similar backgrounds in non-unionized workplaces, and they are more likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance, paid vacation, sick leave, retirement plans and safer workplaces. 

At the same time, the bill would also roll back some of Trump’s regulatory changes that “have really tilted the advantage to employers who cheat their workers,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who backs the bill.

Since 2016, the Trump administration has effectively killed a rule that deprived millions of people of overtime pay, gutted protections for tipped servers, rolled back protections for worker pay and safety, sided with corporations in a case involving forced arbitration agreements and more, according to EPI.

Rep. Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat and a lead co-sponsor of the bill, said it would lead to a “blossoming” for worker rights. Ultimately, he said, it would raise the standard of living for the working class and narrow the growing wealth and income divide.