The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress’s most ambitious attempt to strengthen unions in years is set for a House vote next week

The U.S. Capitol. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

One of the most significant bills to strengthen workers’ abilities to organize in the past 80 years is headed to a vote next week in the House, where it will probably pass amid a newfound momentum for progressive legislation.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act would amend some of the country’s decades-old labor laws to give workers more power during disputes at work, add penalties for companies that violate labor law, and grant potentially hundreds of thousands of workers collective-bargaining rights they don’t currently have. It would also weaken “right-to-work” laws in 27 states that allow employees to forgo participating in and paying dues to unions.

Although the bill is unlikely to be taken up by the Senate, it comes amid a growing conversation about workers’ rights. Strikes have surged to a level not seen since the 1980s, and 2020 candidates have rushed to picket lines to show their support for working people. The bill comes at a time when California is grappling with a new law that gives more rights to contracted workers.

“This is the most ambitious labor law reform to get to the floor of the house in a very long time,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and a former member of the National Labor Relations Board. “I think it’s really important.”

The bill addresses what Democrats, union organizers and labor advocates say are fundamental weaknesses with the U.S. labor law. Republicans have argued strongly against it, saying that it will erode worker privacy and strengthen union power.

The bill would create penalties for employers that violate federal labor law by retaliating against workers who are trying to unionize. Currently, no such penalties exist. Economists and labor law experts say that this means companies have few disincentives for breaking the law. About 40 percent of companies whose workers vote to unionize are charged with violating federal law during union campaigns, according to federal data obtained by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

But this bill would give the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces federal labor law, new power to force companies to pay up to $50,000 per violation. It would also award workers’ compensation for the damages they experience when they are retaliated against, not just back pay, as they are currently entitled to.

The bill would also weigh in on the debate of who gets to be classified as a contractor or an employee. Studies over the past 30 years have estimated that hundreds of thousands to millions of workers are misclassified as contractors when they should be employees, an issue that has become the subject of intense debate in blue states like California.

The bill would change who qualifies as an employee vs. an independent contractor, but the change would apply only to workers seeking to organize or join a union. This move in particular could potentially pave the way for gig workers at companies like Lyft, Uber and DoorDash to organize with unions, if they are found to meet the bill’s new definition for employees.

Gig economy bills move forward in other blue states, after California clears the way

The bill also prevents employers from permanently replacing strikers and allows workers to bring private lawsuits for violations of the National Labor Relations Act.

The bill would also weaken right-to-work laws passed in predominantly red states. Right now, many employees in right-to-work states don’t have to pay union fees to be represented by the union. The bill would change that by allowing unions to force workers at companies that have unions to pay union fees.

The bill has drawn sharp opposition from business and industry groups, hundreds of which have joined forces to lobby against it, saying it could threaten small businesses, curb work opportunities for gig workers, and make it harder for businesses to get legal advice on labor law. The group formed to oppose the bill, the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, has also pointed to a provision that requires employers to provide a list of their employees’ information, including jobs, shift information, cellphone number and address, to union leadership as an NLRB-sanctioned election nears.

“We’re taking this very seriously and considering this a live-fire exercise,” said Glenn Spencer, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the bill. “We think this would be a pretty existential threat to the business community. … Provision after provision, this bill is completely stacked against employers and, we think, workers, too.”

Spencer said that the bill’s move to require employers to turn over their employees’ information is particularly concerning.

Can California rein in tech’s gig platforms? A primer on the bold state law that will try.

The bill passed the labor committee in September, but was put on hold until early January, when 76 Democratic members of the House sent a letter to House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), urging them to bring the bill up for a vote. The letter’s signatories included freshman lawmakers who had flipped red districts in 2018, like Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.); long-standing members of the house like Tim Ryan (D-Ohio); and members of the Progressive Caucus like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass).

“If we get it passed, it means [Americans] will be much more likely to join a union,” said Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. “Right now only 10 percent are in unions. That’s primarily because of the difficulty there is to forming a union. A lot of it is because of the lack of deterrence from unfair labor practices.”

The vote is scheduled for next week.

The Republicans who co-sponsored the bill, Reps. Jeff Van Drew and Christopher H. Smith, both of New Jersey, and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), did not respond to requests for comment.

The bill has 218 sponsors — the exact number of votes needed to pass a bill in the House. But it is unlikely to pass in the GOP-controlled Senate. The staff of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in a statement that his committee would not be considering the legislation this session.

Read more:

Workers are fired up. But union participation is still on the decline, new statistics show.

An increase of $1 in the minimum wage is linked to lower suicide rates, a study says

How a worker who survived a catastrophic building collapse ended up in ICE detention