WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed landmark pro-labor legislation Thursday that backers said could begin to reverse the country’s decades-long decline in union membership.
The bill passed largely along party lines by a vote of 224-194. All nine Democratic members of Pennsylvania’s Capitol Hill delegation voted for the bill, with U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, crossing over to vote in favor as well. Pennsylvania’s eight, remaining GOP congressmen all cast ballots against the ball, according to an official House roll call.
The measure, known as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, would strengthen protections for workers who organize for higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions.
Proponents said it would lead to a surge in union membership, increase workers’ standard of living and narrow the wealth and income divide.
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.
Writing on Twitter, U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, said the legislation will “restore fairness to the American economy and give workers the seat at the bargaining table they rightly deserve.”
— Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon (@RepMGS) February 6, 2020
GOP lawmakers from the Keystone State lacerated the bill.
“The PRO Act needlessly inserts more government control into the employee-employer relationship,” U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, said during floor remarks. “At a roundtable I held with businessowners in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, I heard first-hand how this legislation will negatively impact their ability to grow jobs and raise wages.
“Today’s egregious legislation mislabeled as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, should really be renamed the Unfair to American Workers, or UAW Act,” U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-11th District, said. “I strongly agree that our constitutionally-guaranteed rights like the freedom of association should be protected. But this bill doesn’t strengthen protection for all Americans, this bill upsets the balance between the right of employees to form a union, and the right of individuals to refrain from joining.”
Odds that the bill will become law this year are slim.
Trump veto threat
The legislation would “hurt workers in several ways,” the Trump administration stated. It would kill jobs, destroy the gig economy, violate workers’ privacy, restrict freedom of association, repeal state right-to work laws, and undo the president’s deregulatory agenda, it said.
But GOP opposition doesn’t deter its backers, who say the legislation sends a signal about what Democrats would do if they had more power in Washington.
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. That’s about half the rate in 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available.
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.
Also credited is an uptick in recent decades in state “right to work” laws, which bar workers from being required to join unions to get or keep a job.
“The right to organize is rooted in the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, said Thursday. But strong “union busting” efforts have eroded these rights in recent decades, he said.
Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, said at a press conference Wednesday that the bill would combat the “union-busting industry” and called it “the most significant piece of legislation” to come before the House this year.
Democrats on the presidential campaign trail also support the bill.
U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have signed on to the Senate version of the bill.
Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and former Vice President Biden also support it, according to their campaign websites. Ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also backs the bill, according to a campaign spokesperson.
Business groups, meanwhile, have voiced strong opposition to the bill.
In a letter urging House lawmakers to reject the bill, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark wrote: “The legislation would harm the economy in myriad ways be enacting a slew of harmful labor policies.”