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Landmark Labor Law Overhaul Passes House but Senate Fate Unclear

March 10, 2021, 1:59 AM

The House of Representatives passed the most significant overhaul of federal labor law in decades on Tuesday.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (H.R. 842) is the top legislative priority for organized labor groups and has the backing of President Joe Biden, but the business lobby is seeking to block the bill. Supporters also face a steep challenge overcoming a filibuster in the Senate.

The bill cleared the House on a 225-206 vote. The chamber previously passed the PRO Act last year along mostly party lines.

Advocates say the bill is even more critical after the coronavirus pandemic exposed the challenges for many workers seeking safe conditions. It cleared the House as workers at an Amazon plant in Alabama vote on whether to form a union, a campaign that has attracted national attention and a shoutout from Biden.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attends a press conference on the Protecting the Right To Organize (PRO) Act at the U.S. Capitol in February 2020 in Washington, D.C.
Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Boosting workers’ right to unionize would “help combat the acceleration of economic inequality that undermines the middle class, that has only grown worse over the past year,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on Tuesday ahead of the bill’s passage.

Business lobby groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have said the bill would kill jobs, and promised to oppose it in the Senate.

Worker Protections

The PRO Act would amend the National Labor Relations Act, a federal law that guarantees private-sector employees the right to unionize, engage in collective bargaining, and take collective action such as strikes. Among other changes, it would bar employers from retaliating against unionization efforts, protect workers’ right to strike, and override state “right to work” laws that allow employees to opt out of paying dues in unionized workplaces.

Companies would be banned under the bill, for example, from holding “captive audience” meetings, in which workers are compelled to listen to anti-union messages from their employer. The legislation also would give the National Labor Relations Board power to levy fines against companies that engage in unfair labor practices, and require arbitration when unionized workers can’t reach agreement on a contract with employers.

BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 842, Private Sector Union Rights

The bill would allow employees to hold union elections off of company premises and use mail or electronic ballots, a provision that supporters say is essential during the pandemic. Electronic ballots are currently banned.

The PRO Act addresses the status of independent contractors—such as gig workers at ride-hailing and food delivery companies—by lowering the bar for contractors to prove they are employees under federal labor law. That would allow gig workers to organize unions and protest retaliation under the NLRA—rights currently guaranteed only to employees, not contractors.

The legislation would adopt the same rigid test to determine workers’ employment status as a California law known as A.B. 5. Workers for app-based services were recently carved out of the state law by a ballot initiative, Proposition 22, bankrolled by gig companies.

The California law also applies to employment rules governing overtime and minimum wage. The PRO Act, however, only addresses workers’ status under the National Labor Relations Act.

Senate Opposition

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the ranking member on the Education and Labor Committee, said the legislation would hurt entrepreneurs and individual workers by “making unions bigger and the individual freedom smaller.” Republicans in the Senate, including Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), have already gone on record opposing the PRO Act.

Union leaders pledged to carry on the fight in the Senate. The legislation faces slim chances there without changes to filibuster rules, which require 60 votes to end debate on a bill and bring it to a vote.

The vocal support from the Biden administration is significant for the future of the legislation, said Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

“We just don’t know what labor law reform is possible with an administration willing to expend critical political capital,” McNicholas said.

With assistance from Erin Mulvaney, Emily Wilkins, and Ian Kullgren

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at; John Lauinger at