(Adds comment from American Federation of Teachers president beginning in 12th paragraph.)
A sweeping labor bill headed to the Senate presents a major test for Democrats, placing moderates squarely in the middle of a tug-of-war between business groups and powerful union donors.
Labor unions’ strength was on display this week after the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (H.R. 842), the top priority for organized labor, for the second time, with more Democrats voting in favor compared to last year’s passage.
But progressives fear the caucus unity could be for naught without changes to the filibuster, a procedural rule that requires 60 votes to bring a bill to the floor in the Senate—which the bill is unlikely to garner.
Failures to pass progressive priorities like the PRO Act, gun control, or a hike in the minimum wage could imperil the party’s House majority in 2022, Democrats on the left say. At the same time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce alerted lawmakers that voting in favor of the PRO Act would factor into future endorsements from the influential business group.
“This is not one of the more bipartisan plays,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) said about the PRO Act. “It’s hard to see us passing something in the Senate without dealing with the filibuster in one way or another.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, promised she would work to advance the bill. However a Democratic aide said Democrats don’t see a path to getting 10 GOP votes needed to break a filibuster in the 50-50 chamber.
Senate Democrats—particularly Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who have opposed changing the filibuster—are facing renewed heat from organized labor leaders who said they’ll do whatever is necessary to pass the biggest expansion of union rights in nearly a century.
Manchin and Sinema’s offices didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The bill includes provisions intended to boost union membership after decades of decline. It would abolish state “right-to-work” laws that ban mandatory collection of dues or fees as a condition of employment, penalize employers that retaliate among union drives, and extend federal labor rights to many workers currently classified as independent contractors, among other measures.
The AFL-CIO executive council on Thursday called on the Senate to do away with the filibuster, calling it “an artifact of Jim Crow” and “a creature of white supremacy.”
“We’re looking at everything on the table to get this thing passed, because it’s not an option. Workers have waited 100 years,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters on March 9.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union, said supporters of the PRO Act should work with Republicans in the Senate but not allow them to simply block legislation from coming up for a vote.
“If they just obstruct, then it’s time to change the rules so that fairness and the will of the majority prevails,” she said in an interview.
Critics of the bill, such as business groups, argue it would limit workers’ ability to take jobs without joining unions, and weaken employers’ standing before the National Labor Relations Board.
More Unified Caucus
Democrats showed a more unified stance on the PRO Act this year. Only one House Democrat—Rep. Henry Cuellar (Tex.)—voted with Republicans to oppose the bill, compared to seven last year.
Three of those seven Democrats ended up losing re-election, underscoring how carefully some members in more centrist districts must tread.
In an emailed statement, Cuellar said “this is the time to empower our small businesses and their workforce, not hinder them.” He faced his toughest primary challenge yet last year when he defeated immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros with 51.8% of the vote. Cisneros won the support of the Service Employees International Union and Texas AFL-CIO, in large part thanks to Cuellar’s opposition to the PRO Act.
“If you can’t vote for that bill, it’s really difficult to see how you can say you stand with working people,” said Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog coalition, voted for the legislation this year after casting a no vote in 2020. Murphy split with the rest of the caucus over the “joint employer” provision in the bill, which she had said didn’t strike the appropriate balance.
That provision would require larger employers to bargain with the employees of subcontractors and franchisees, specifically in instances where the two companies are deemed joint employers. Opponents say such a change could require franchisers to bargain with workers outside their direct control. In addition, they say franchisers could be unfairly penalized for labor law violations committed by another employer.
Murphy secured an amendment that would require a Government Accountability Office report on the effects of that change.
Moving the Pieces
Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democrat who represents a purple district in Oregon, also changed course after voting no last year. He said in a statement his goal was “to support moving the pieces of this legislation forward for Senate consideration that I have long supported, while maintaining my opposition to the codification of a joint employer standard.”
Schrader suggested he might not vote for the bill if it came back to the House after Senate passage, pledging to “take a close look at any changes made in the Senate before committing my vote.” He declined multiple interview requests through a spokeswoman.
Those votes show labor issues have become mainstream in the party to an extent not seen even a few years ago, said Ian Russell, a political strategist at Beacon Media and former national political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Part of that is lobbying on behalf of labor,” he said. “Part of that is members on our side understand the importance that labor plays, especially as we’re building back from the pandemic.”
Business Lobby Frustrated
The Chamber of Commerce sent an alert that lawmakers’ vote on the PRO Act would factor into a scorecard for future endorsements, said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the Chamber of Commerce.
“So for those members who voted yes, it will negatively impact their score,” Bradley said. “It’s absolutely going to be a topic of conversation as we make our future decisions.”
In addition to Murphy, 14 other House Democrats endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce voted for the PRO Act, in spite of the group’s opposition.
Opponents had hoped more Democrats would break ranks given that the bill had a better chance at becoming law. But many still assume it has little chance in the Senate, making a yes vote less risky, said Matt Haller, a senior lobbyist for the International Franchise Association, a trade group that opposes the bill’s redefinition of joint employment.
The sweeping changes in the PRO Act are “not something that should be done quickly or taken lightly, but that’s exactly what is being done here,” Haller said in an email.
Business allies were also frustrated Republican leaders didn’t do enough to counter unions’ robust messaging campaign.
“I was disappointed the whole time I was in Congress with the lack of understanding in leadership of the importance of labor employment law,” said former Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), an employment attorney who served on the Education and Labor Committee until this year.
“They just kind of viewed it as sort of a backwater,” Byrne said. “And so it was treated as a backwater.”