WASHINGTON — In a move that supporters said would help working families, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved a bill to make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain for higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions.
The “Protecting the Right to Organize” or PRO Act would allow more workers to conduct organizing campaigns and would add penalties for companies that violate workers’ rights. The act would weaken “right-to-work” laws that allow employees in more than half the states to avoid participating in or paying dues to unions that represent workers at their places of employment.
In one of its most controversial provisions, the bill would close loopholes that allow what supporters call intentional misclassification of workers as supervisors and independent contractors in order to prevent them from joining a union.
The House approved the bill, 224-194, on Thursday. The measure is unlikely to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate and faces a veto threat from the White House.
Even so, Democrats touted it as a major victory for worker rights and said it would help reverse a decades-long trend of declining union membership in the U.S. workforce. Less than 11 percent of American workers belong to a union, a statistic Democrats called disgraceful.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, called labor unions one of the most powerful tools workers have to improve their standard of living. But under current law, there are “no meaningful penalties for predatory corporations that use unlawful tactics to discourage workers from organizing a union,” said Scott, who chairs the House labor committee.
It came to a vote after a push led by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, who led a letter from more than 70 other Democrats including Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District last month asking party leaders to bring it to the floor.
“More Mainers need access to a good job with wages and benefits that will actually support a family, and empowering unions and workers is the best way to achieve those goals,” Golden said in a statement.
Republicans dismissed the bill as a “political gift to union bosses” that would diminish the rights of workers and employers alike while harming the economy. Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the senior Republican on the labor panel, said “Big Labor is in a panic over plummeting union membership.”
Federal law already protects the right of employees to organize, Foxx said, adding that the House bill would require employers to hand over workers’ personal information to union organizers, allowing them to “target, harass and intimidate workers.”
The White House also objected to the bill. While the Trump administration is willing to work with Congress to strengthen protections for union members, the House bill would kill jobs, violate workers’ privacy, restrict freedom of association and roll back the administration’s deregulatory agenda, the White House said in a statement.
The Democratic bill “appears to cut and paste” core parts of a California law that “severely restricts self-employment” and is actively threatening the existence of both the franchise business sector and the gig economy in California,” the White House said, adding that it “would be a serious mistake for Congress to impose this flawed job-killing policy on the entire country.”
The California law has drawn attention for its attempt to give wage and benefit protections to people who work for ride-share companies such as Uber and Lyft. The law also applies to freelance journalists, despite complaints that it could put some out of work.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.