House panel approves pro-worker labor law rewrite

By a party-line 26-21 vote after an all-day work session, the Democratic-run House Education and Labor Committee passed the Protect the Right to Organize (Pro) Act, the most-comprehensive pro-worker rewrite of U.S. labor law in decades. All the Democrats voted for it and all the Republicans voted against it.

The measure, co-written by top lawmakers and union legislative representatives, would restore many of the freedoms and protections workers gained under the original National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

The Pro Act, formally titled HR2474, is also expected to pass the Democratic-run House, though the exact date for debate has not been set. The Republican-run Senate is another matter. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., lumps it with other House-approved measures – including federal elections reform – as “socialism.”

And corporate contributors to congressional Republicans can be expected to mount a large and expensive lobbying campaign against it, just as they spent millions of dollars a decade ago to destroy an attempt to rewrite labor law with legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act.

The Pro Act would undo much of the damage done to worker rights by the GOP-passed Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, court decisions, NLRB rulings and other Republican-crafted legislation.

It would also counter a key assumption of the NLRA: That bosses break labor law unintentionally, so penalties should be light.

Eighty-four years of experience shows that’s wrong. The Pro Act recognizes that with high fines for labor law breaking – including fines directed at CEOs and boards of directors, immediate restoration of illegally fired workers to their jobs, and swift court injunctions.

And the Pro Act would remedy two big problems in labor law. The GOP created one in the Taft-Hartley law. It legalized the process under which workers may enjoy the benefits of union membership without joining or paying dues.

The Pro Act would stop employers from constant anti-union harangues in mandatory captive audience meetings and “would ban what I would call ‘right to freeload’ laws,” Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., a former AFL-CIO deputy organizing director, said.

Another change would drastically curb employer misclassification of workers as independent contractors, depriving them of worker rights, including the right to organize.

Instead, workers would automatically be considered employees, with full worker rights, unless and until bosses could prove otherwise. And there wouldn’t be many loopholes left for bosses to do so.

“What is keeping” workers from unionizing “are toothless labor laws, aggressive employer opposition to unions, and relentless political attacks that have dismantled workers’ right to organize,” Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., said.

“To make matters worse, the National Labor Relations Board – the NLRB – under the Trump administration has taken steps to permit employers to gerrymander union elections, misclassify employees as independent contractors, and punish workers for exercising their First Amendment rights,” Scott said.

“Meanwhile,” he added, “the NLRB proposed substantive rules that will roll back protections for workers with joint employers and promote decertification elections. . .The Pro Act would deter employers from violating workers’ rights to form unions.”

“The Pro Act will give working people a voice on the job so they can negotiate for higher wages, better benefits, a more secure retirement and protection from discrimination,” AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel wrote lawmakers on Sept. 24. He urged them to pass the legislation and reject amendments the GOP proposed to weaken it.

“For too long, employers have been able to violate the National Labor Relations Act with impunity, routinely denying workers our basic right to join with coworkers for fairness on the job. As a result, the collective strength of workers to negotiate for better pay and benefits has eroded and income inequality has reached levels that predate the Great Depression,” he said.

“The Pro Act would modernize the NLRA by bringing its remedies in line with other workplace laws. In addition to imposing financial penalties on companies and individual corporate officers who violate the law, the bill would give workers the option of bringing their case to federal court,” Samuel wrote.

Employers also couldn’t reclassify workers as supervisors or independent contractors to escape unionization, Samuel added.

The proposed legislation also bans employers from hiring scabs.

And the Pro Act would mandate the NLRB force an employer to bargain negotiating a first contract or submit to mediation and then binding arbitration when it refuses.

“This important change would make the freedom to negotiate a reality for countless workers who form unions but never get to enjoy the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement,” Samuel explained.

And HR2474 would reverse a recent Trump NLRB decision that made it easier for companies to toss out – decertify – unions and harder for unions to get back in once they’re ejected, lawmakers said.

And, overcoming a U.S. Supreme Court ruling by its GOP majority, the proposed legislation would let workers again bring class action cases against employers, Samuel said. The justices forced the workers into individual arbitration, and statistics show bosses prevail in arbitration nine times out of every ten cases.

“Restoring our middle class is dependent on strengthening the collective power of workers to negotiate for better pay and working conditions. That is why public support for unions is the highest it has been in decades. We urge you to support the Pro Act and help us build an economy that works for all working families,” Samuel said.

“The Trump NLRB has worked to reduce the opportunity to organize and bargain,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore. “We should be making it easier, not harder.”

Bonamici, like other Pacific Northwest lawmakers, is concerned that the Fred Meyer grocery chain is forcing its 20,000 workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, to strike.