An expansive pro-union bill that would make sweeping changes in U.S. labor laws is headed to the Senate, following the House's March 9 approval by a 225-206 vote.
The Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO, Act, has sparked a major battle within the construction industry, with building trades unions strongly supporting the measure and contractor groups vociferously opposing it.
Last year, the House, controlled then, as now, by Democrats, passed a highly similar bill, but the Senate, then controlled by Republicans, didn't take it up.
This time, the new PRO bill will go to a Senate where Democrats hold a thin edge. But the measure's advocates in that chamber would need to round up 60 votes in favor, an exceptionally long shot.
If the bill does pass, it would be a landmark win for labor unions. Many of them specifically cited the PRO Act in their endorsements of then-candidate Joe Biden last year. As a candidate, Biden promised to be a pro-union president and included passage of the PRO Act among his legislative priorities.
After the House vote, Biden tweeted, “I believe every worker deserves a free and fair choice to join a union—and the PRO Act will bring us closer to that reality."
Biden added. “I urge Congress to send it to my desk so we can summon a new wave of worker power and create an economy that works for everyone.”
One PRO Act provision that has divided the construction industry is language that would effectively upend “right to work” laws that are currently on the books in 27 states. By eliminating those laws, unions could collect dues even from workers who opt out of joining a union.
Building Trades' Support
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a Painters' union member for 30 years, said the bill would lead to higher wages for workers. Pocan noted that in his home state, “we’ve seen the first-hand effects of the attacks on labor, as Republicans have gutted labor protections and turned my home state into a ‘right-to-work’ state."
He said, "The PRO Act would eliminate those state ‘right-to-work-for-less’ laws and ensure that unions can receive the full support of the workers it represents.”
The PRO Act also aims to expand the authority of the National Labor Relations Board, including an increase in penalties against those who violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers' union, said in a March 8 letter to House members, “One of the most significant problems with the [NLRA] is the absence of effective remedies for workers against employers who break the law.”
O'Sullivan added, “Often, employers fire union supporters to defeat union organizing efforts, knowing that the penalty is low, only lost wages, and even that is reduced by the amount the worker earns on any other work that he or she finds after getting fired.
He said that the PRO Act would authorize the National Labor Relations Board to impose penalties of up to $50,000 for unfair labor practices.
The PRO Act also clarifies the definition of employee classification, taking aim at use of independent contractors.
Timothy Driscoll, president of the Bricklayers' union, in a letter to House members. said, “Misclassification is far too common in construction and other industries and it prevents workers from exercising their rights, getting the pay and benefits they deserve and deprives communities of much-needed revenue through tax evasion.”
In addition, the legislation would make it illegal for employers to hold mandatory company meetings that could influence union elections.
AGC, ABC Opposition
Major construction contractor associations have attacked the PRO Act. The Associated General Contractors of America maintains that the measure would provide unions with excessive leverage in collective bargaining and unionizing efforts.
Among the concerns AGC raises is the PRO Act's end to a ban on “secondary boycotts.” Those boycotts allow unions to picket against any employer regardless of whether they are directly involved in a dispute with that union.
“These boycotts will force many workers to suffer, without pay, for disputes where they do not stand to benefit,” said Stephen Sandherr, AGC chief executive officer, in a statement.
Sandherr added that the PRO Act would bring about “a new era of labor unrest that will stifle future economic activity and job growth."
He said that Instead of helping deliver higher wages and better benefits, the PRO Act would provide labor uncertainty, stagnant economic growth and diminished entrepreneurial opportunity.
Sandherr said AGC with continue to oppose the measure “and take every possible step to prevent its passage in the Senate.”
Michael Bellaman, Associated Builders and Contractors president and CEO, warned that the legislation could hamper post-pandemic economic recovery.
Bellaman said in a statement, “While the construction industry has already recovered three-quarters of the jobs lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, contractors need to hire hundreds of thousands of workers in 2021 just to keep up with the demand for construction services.”
He added, “If the PRO Act becomes law, it will limit the ability for the construction industry to bring back or hire those professionals.”
Kristen Swearingen, ABC’s vice president of legislative and political affairs, called on the Senate to "ignore the PRO Act," because it would eliminate right-to-work policies in more than half of the states.
Swearingen said the bill also would "violate employees’ privacy, upend the business community and devastate the economy."
She added, "Instead of stripping the more than 87% of construction workers who chose not to join a union of their privacy, freedom and choice, the Senate should instead be working collaboratively and productively on legislation that rebuilds our nation's economy."