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Democrats Still Rallying Members on Minimum Wage, Labor Bills

July 5, 2019, 10:16 AM

House Democrats, eager to get two top labor policy items off the ground this year, are facing a tougher time than expected getting party members on the same page.

A proposal to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024 is moving forward to a floor vote later this month, after facing some pushback by some fellow Democrats. Headway on another proposal, with big implications for labor, has been much slower as more progressive members work to rally and educate lawmakers on provisions of the bill.

The Raise the Wage Act (H.R. 582) is one of the Democratic Party’s signature reforms targeting the workforce. Despite concerns by some in the party that the bill goes too far in rural communities and for small businesses, party leaders feel confident that they have the votes needed to get the measure passed before the end of July. Lawmakers, staffers, and lobbyists have been pushing hard to get the necessary support for the bill after those concerns slowed momentum, sources tell Bloomberg Law.

“People are going to have to make their own judgment on it but we are confident we have 218 votes,” Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said June 27.

A wide-reaching labor rights protection bill, on the other hand, is not yet ready for prime time, despite support from party leadership. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (H.R. 2474), viewed as a union support barometer for lawmakers, has racked up sponsorship from even conservative Democrats, making the business community uneasy. But the bill’s backers are trying to shore up the votes to pass the measure, which may see another hearing and has yet to get a markup.

“It’s taking a little more time and that’s OK. People certainly deserve an explanation as to why certain provisions are in the bill,” Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO, said of the legislation."We’re optimistic.”

The bills, unlikely to move in the Republican-controlled Senate, could play a role on the campaign trail in the run-up to the 2020 elections. Many Democratic White House candidates have backed both proposals, along with other lawmakers up for re-election and looking to unions for support.

The legislation’s backers say the bills will be reintroduced if they fail this year. That’s getting the attention of influential business groups that view the measures as a threat to industry and employers.

Lawmakers seem to believe supporting a measure that’s dead on arrival in the Senate is an easy way to get union endorsements, but are underestimating the staying power of this proposal, Suzanne Beall with the International Franchise Association said. That will “without a doubt” be used by unions to place pressure on those lawmakers if Democrats win the Senate and White House in 2020 and maintain power in the House, she said.

Work Remains on $15

Progress on the minimum wage bill has been stymied due to concerns from moderate party members and representatives of districts with rural communities that the increase would happen too fast and that big wage hikes could put some employers out of business in areas where the cost of living is relatively low.

Alabama Democrat Rep. Terri Sewell introduced alternative legislation (H.R. 2080) April 4 that would raise the federal minimum wage by using different stages for different parts of the country based on the regional cost of living. Although that measure threatened to splinter Democrats, it appears to be less of an impediment to getting the $15-an-hour bill to a vote.

A Sewell representative said the congresswoman will vote for the Raise the Wage Act, but is still working to secure provisions to help small businesses absorb a minimum wage increase.

Some lawmakers, notably members of the Blue Dog Caucus, have supported both Sewell’s and Scott’s bill in order to push the conversation of regional differences forward, one lobbyist said. It’s not clear whether those discussions will be limited to hearings or could also be hashed out on the House floor by allowing votes on amendments.

“I don’t know what we would negotiate about. If it’s about regional differences I’d say no. I think we’re going to press forward,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a member of the Education and Labor Committee. “I think those members are mistakenly apprehensive. A minimum wage bill will be extremely popular for both sides. When we get it to the floor I think there will be a lot of Republicans that will be pressured to vote for this bill.”

Still, similar concerns among Republicans mean the legislation is likely to stall in the Senate. The likelihood of achieving the 60 votes needed to pass the $15-an-hour minimum wage bill in the Senate with bipartisan support is “zero,” said Glenn Spencer with the Chamber of Commerce.

Race to Support PRO Act

The PRO Act, introduced in the House and Senate May 2, would substantially broaden workers’ rights to strike and unionize.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Scott indicated the bill is still in committee with no date set for possible additional hearings or a markup.

Some members of Congress still need to be educated on the value of unionizing before then, Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) said. Levin worked at the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions, before running for office. He added that he hasn’t started whipping votes on the PRO Act.

“These are really important conversations to have with colleagues,” he said. “I’m in even less of a rush about that. It’s really important to build consensus in the party about that issue.”

The legislation has caught the eye of the business community. Lobbyists are closely watching a growing list of more than 170 lawmakers who support the bill, including the moderate Democrats and the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of centrist party members.

Reps. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), two of the more conservative members of the Blue Dogs, are among those backing the bill. That’s seemingly signaling to other members of the caucus that it’s OK to support the measure, a business community lobbyist told Bloomberg Law.

Beall said Democrats aren’t accounting for the negative impact the measure would have on businesses.

The IFA is concerned particularly about a provision that would codify into federal law the California Supreme Court’s ruling from last year in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court. The court in that decision adopted a three-factor test to determine employment status, also referred to as the “ABC test.” A franchise owner who licenses the brand from the franchiser to run and operate its own independent business would be considered an employee under that test, the organization said.

Underestimating Staying Power

If anything, the PRO Act serves as a barometer for unions to gauge which lawmakers are worthy of labor’s endorsements, according to Beall and Spencer.

The Senate version of the bill (S.1306), introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), has the support of multiple Democrats running for president as they seek organize labor’s endorsement for 2020. That includes Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Michael Bennet (Colo.). White House hopeful Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) endorsed the House version.

“It’d be hard to imagine a candidate coming before an audience of union members, asking them for their support during a campaign, and not be willing to stand in support of this bill,” Samuel said. Endorsements come from local union affiliates, state labor federations, and other labor groups and not the AFL-CIO, he noted.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jdiaz@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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