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House Approval Vaults Union-Backed Labor Bill Into Fall Campaign

Feb. 7, 2020, 2:12 AM

Protections for private-sector workers to unionize would be significantly expanded under a bill passed by the House—the most significant labor legislation to clear the chamber in more than a decade.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (H.R. 2474), passed 224-194, will lay down the battle lines for the future according to unions and businesses . The bill is more far-reaching than past attempts to revamp federal labor laws, with several provisions taking aim at the underlying causes of declining union membership and growing income inequality—a touchstone issue in the fall elections.

The measure, which organized labor supported through a sustained lobbying campaign, would modify federal labor laws to allow unions and employers to negotiate agreements requiring bargaining-unit employees to pay for costs of union representation. It would bar employers from discriminating against workers who strike, impose penalties for violating workers’ rights, and change the criteria used to classify a worker as an independent contractor versus an employee—a debate that has intensified amid the rise of the gig economy and in California as the state grapples with legislative changes that adopt a tougher classification test.

The bill also would effectively nullify state “right-to-work” laws opposed by unions. Those laws—on the books in 27 states—generally prohibit agreements between unions and employers that require workers who aren’t union members but benefit from collective bargaining to pay dues or fees.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), ranking member of the House Rules Committee, said during a committee hearing on the bill that the legislation’s undoing of right-to-work laws was especially concerning to him. Cole noted he helped pass his state’s right-to-work law, feels strongly about maintaining the law, and didn’t want to support a bill that would “unilaterally repeal” it.

BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 2474, Private Sector Union Rights

A similar Senate bill (S.1306) is unlikely to get a floor vote, and businesses have stepped up lobbying efforts to short-circuit union agitation for the bill in the chamber. The White House highlighted the partisan stakes surrounding the legislation, declaring in a statement threatening to veto the bill due to the legislation’s threat to jobs and the gig economy.

“It would be a serious mistake for Congress to impose this flawed job-killing policy on the entire country,” the statement said.

Trade associations and employer groups ranging from life insurance providers to the restaurant industry ramped up lobbying efforts prior to the House vote. They emphasized the business community’s view that the legislation is a threat to companies across the country and could result in a wave of costly litigation.

“This is a bill with labor policy proposals that have not only been dismissed in the courts, but have been rejected by Congress for decades,” said Kevin Kuhlman, National Federation of Independent Business’ Senior Director of Federal Government Relations, said.

On the other side of the labor divide, unions are eager to make the PRO Act an election issue, warning that lawmakers who voted against the bill—or senators cool to the companion bill—should expect to be portrayed by unions as hostile to organized labor.

Notably, a day before the vote, AFL-CIO’s President Richard Trumka spoke directly to lawmakers when he said, “And to those who would oppose, delay or derail this legislation—do not ask the labor movement for a dollar or a door knock. We won’t be coming.”

Both sides realize the legislation’s fate is intertwined with the 2020 electoral cycle: The only way for the bill to become law in the near future is for Democrats to preserve their House majority and take both the White House and the Senate.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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