Photo credit: David Arouca, Transportation Communications Union/IAM, AFL-CIO
     Rep. Donald Norcross of New Jersey, the only member of the IBEW in the U.S. House of Representatives, speaks at a press conference ahead of Thursday’s landmark passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act as
     members of other labor unions and fellow House members — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, right — look on.

An effort in Congress to make it easier for working people to join labor unions took a big step forward on Thursday when 224 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. 

“It’s unfortunate that workers need an act of Congress to get us back to the original intent of the National Labor Relations Act,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “But it’s heartening that House members from both parties can agree on a strategy for strengthening this landmark law that has helped make the lives of countless working people better over the last 85 years.”

Sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia and introduced last May, the PRO Act calls for such modernizing the definition of unfair labor practices and for allowing fines or lawsuits against employers who keep workers from forming workplace bargaining units, among other reforms.

“Evidence and experience demonstrate that labor unions are one of the most powerful tools workers have to improve the standard of living for themselves and their families,” said Scott, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. “The PRO Act is a comprehensive proposal to ensure that workers have the right to stand together and negotiate for higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions.”

The act, H.R. 2474, aims to repeal the so-called “right-to-work” laws, enacted in 27 states, that openly discourage workers from organizing and allow employees to be free riders, reaping the benefits of union membership like contract negotiations and enforcement without contributing to their costs.

“The PRO Act would help stabilize the power balance in the workplace and empower the middle class to grow stronger,” said Political and Legislative Affairs Department Director Austin Keyser, who noted that recent national polls have shown that approval of unions in general is trending upward, with about half of all non-organized workers saying they would join a union if they could.

Labor activists hope the stronger penalties prescribed by the PRO Act will make employers think twice before interfering with workers’ rights to organize and bargain for contracts. The bill also targets the so-called “captive audience” meetings that employers often use to bully workers who are thinking about unionizing.

The House Education and Labor Committee approved the PRO Act in September, and then it sat untouched for months. But thanks largely to a steady stream of activist phone calls from members of the IBEW and other labor unions since then, Keyser said, 76 representatives were moved to sign on to a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California in January, asking for a full House vote on the measure.

Folsom, N.J., Local 351 member Donald Norcross, a former business agent who has represented New Jersey’s 1st Congressional District since 2014, was among those who signed on to the letter to Pelosi. He was also one of the PRO Act’s original co-sponsors.

“As an IBEW member and a lifelong labor leader, I can attest to the importance of giving workers a voice in the workplace by protecting them from violations of unfair labor law and practices,” Norcross said. “The PRO Act restores fairness to an economy that’s rigged against workers by closing loopholes in federal labor laws and increasing transparency in labor-management relations.”

Shortly after the letter was sent, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland promised, via Twitter, to bring “the PRO Act to the House Floor for a vote prior to the President’s Day district work period.”

Next, the bill heads to the Senate, although the Republican majority there has shown little interest in considering worker-focused legislation. Even so, Stephenson said, IBEW members should be proud of the progress that we’ve made so far.

“It took years for working people to finally get the Cadillac tax repealed,” Stephenson said. “But we won that fight against unfair taxes on our health benefits, and we’ll win this one too.

“We can and should keep up the pressure on our senators by telling them to support H.R. 2474,” Stephenson said, “and by reminding all of our legislators that working people will remember their support for our priorities — or their lack of support — on Election Day.” 

Tell your senators you support the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO Act) at (202) 224-3121 or