On Capitol Hill, Pa. Dems advance pro-union reforms with an eye toward Nov. elections

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: The U.S. Capitol is shown at dusk.(Photo by Win McNamee/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 generations.

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 Pennsylvania 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.

U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-2nd District,  — one of the bill’s lead co-sponsors — called it “the most significant labor bill” since the late 1940s in an interview with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

The bill has the support of the state’s nine House Democrats and one of its Republicans — Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who often crosses the aisle to vote with the opposition party. None of the state’s eight other Republicans has signed on.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, a coalition of unions, called for passage of the bill in a press conference Wednesday.

“Now is the time, in fact, it’s way past time, to protect the right to organize for workers in the 21st century,” he said. The House bill “is how we do it.”

The bill isn’t likely to become law anytime soon, given GOP control of the U.S. Senate and White House. But that doesn’t deter its backers, who sense political opportunity in the vote.

“Just because [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell won’t do his job doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t do mine,” Boyle said. “I would much rather do the right thing, do what the people who voted us into the leadership of the House last year want us to do, and use that to attempt to put the pressure on Mitch McConnell, and especially the half dozen Republican senators who are up this election cycle and are in competitive states.”

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 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,” U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-11th District, and other Republicans said in a statement last year.

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 Pennsylvania, though the state has seen a decline in union membership in recent decades, dropping from 15 percent of workers in 2007 to 12 percent of the state’s 5.6 million workers last year.

The decline 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.

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’

Boyle said union membership would surge in the Keystone State and across the country if it were to become law.

“In many ways, it would restore the healthy balance between labor and management that we had in the late 1940s, 1950s, 1960s,” he said. That, not coincidentally, “was a time in American history in which we had incredible economic growth … that was pretty equally shared no matter where you were on the income ladder.”

A core provision of the bill 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).

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.

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“A law is only as good as the teeth it has,” she added. “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 the EPI.

On 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.

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Since 2016, the Trump administration has effectively killed a rule that deprived millions 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 the EPI.

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich.,  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.