Organized Labor Increases Pressure on Senate Democrats to Pass the PRO Act

Labor unions force moderate Democrats to pass a critical litmus test for 2022

Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP

On April 21st, unions threatened Senate Democrats to back the PRO Act or else they’d drop their support, reports POLITICO. Rarely is there such a blatantly obvious example of special interests groups effectively extorting politicians to institute kickbacks or else lose campaign dollar support. Unions are specifically targeting three Senators who represent the more moderate or center-left wing of the Democratic Party: Senators Mark Kelly, Kyrsten Sinema, and Mark Warner.

Unions are well aware that the PRO Act is unlikely to pass under the current 60 votes requirement under Senate rules, but as POLITICO reports the “unions see it as a litmus test.” A litmus test for what you might ask? Well, “losing unions’ support ahead of 2022 could be devastating to Democrats, who are looking to maintain — and, ideally, build on — their razor thin majorities in the House and Senate.” Union support for Democrats and their campaigns is critical, as they sent over $1.1 billion in member dues to liberal advocacy groups between 2010 and 2016. During the 2020 Election, labor groups directly contributed over $240 million to advocacy groups and Democrats. To put this figure into perspective, the NRA spent roughly $30 million on advocacy during the 2020 Election and only $12.2 million across 145 congressional races in 2020. Given the amount of money spent by labor groups to elect Democrats, is it reasonable for the labor groups to expect a return on their “investment?” Absolutely.

Labor unions expect elected Democrats to universally accept and pass the PRO Act. Labor’s pressure on Senate Democrats stems from an April 21st call with leadership; one person familiar with the call said, “the intent was to underline the importance of labor’s support to Democrats generally and the importance of the PRO Act to union members.” President Biden understands the importance of maintaining this relationship, as his administration included the PRO Act in his “infrastructure” proposal.

So what exactly is in the PRO Act? The “Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021” or PRO Act includes the following:

  • “The PRO Act would allow unions to override [right-to-work] laws and collect dues from those who opt out [of a union], in order to cover the cost of collective bargaining and administration of the contract,” according to NPR. So if an employee opts out of union membership, the PRO Act would allow the union to collect dues from the employee regardless of his explicit opt out. This public sector union practice was considered a violation of the First Amendment in the Supreme Court case of Janus v. AFSCME in 2018.
  • Redefines certain elements of traditional independent contractor work into employee status. (this change is discussed in detail in a later paragraph)
  • Allows the National Labor Relations Board to “implement a system and procedures to conduct representation elections remotely using an electronic voting system.”
  • New types of unfair labor practices under Section 104 of the bill.
  • Gives the National Labor Relations Board “the ability to fine companies that retaliate against workers for organizing and give collective bargaining rights to many workers who do not have them now,” according to CNBC.
California’s AB-5 Law: Who can be considered an “independent contractor”? — The Federalist Society

So why do these specific provisions stand out? For one, the PRO Act would override a crucial aspect of state “right-to-work” laws that do not force non-union employees to pay dues to unions. State right-to-work laws have been a frequent target of organized labor and progressive politicians. Secondly, the PRO Act would redefine independent contractor status under the law to more closely match California Assembly Bill 5 (“AB 5”). Specifically, AB 5 states that “a person providing labor or services for remuneration shall be considered an employee rather than an independent contractor unless the hiring entity demonstrates that all of the following conditions [of the ABC test] are satisfied.” The ABC test lays out three narrower characteristics of independent contractor work. The concern with a federal version of this bill is that employers cannot escape it like they can with AB 5 and that major corporations like Uber and Lyft can afford to challenge the provisions in court. Finally, the PRO Act engages with the issue of unionization and collective bargaining; this comes at a time when union membership only constitutes roughly 10.8 percent of all wage and salary workers. Given this reality, one might wonder how such a small proportion of all wage and salary workers and their representation are able to make such a sizable impact on the remaining 89 percent of wage and salary workers. As POLITICO reported, the PRO Act is not likely to be passed by this Congress under the current 60-vote requirement but it is telling that such a small fraction of the overall workforce is able to influence policy at such a high level.

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Mitchell Nemeth

Mitchell Nemeth

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