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April 2023

PRO Act Returns With Bipartisan Support for Workers' Rights, Strong Unions
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A bipartisan group of lawmakers reintroduced a federal bill Feb. 28 to strengthen workers' organizing and bargaining rights and steepen penalties against law-breaking employers, including personal liability for violations by corporate directors and officers.

Informally known as the PRO Act since it was first introduced in 2019, the updated bill is called the Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2023, named for the AFL-CIO president who died suddenly in 2021.

Drawing a direct line between strong unions and a strong middle class, the bill's provisions mark the most significant progress for workers since the badly eroded National Labor Relations Act became law in 1935. The NLRA, which codified workers' rights and directed the federal government to facilitate the growth of unions, has been under attack by Congress and the courts ever since.

Rep. Bobby Scott, ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the new legislation would go a long way toward repairing the damage and putting more money in workers' pockets.

"Over the last year, the American economy has recovered at a record pace, thanks to the hard work and resilience of our nation's workers," Scott said, stressing that unions are essential to ensure that workers reap their fair share of the rewards.

"We must focus on building our economy from the bottom up and the middle out," he said. "As a historic number of Americans put their support behind labor unions, Congress has an urgent responsibility to ensure that workers can join a union and negotiate for higher pay, better benefits and safer workplaces."

Scott, a Virginia Democrat, and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, jointly introduced the bill (H.R. 20), which had 205 co-sponsors within a week. A Senate version was introduced by Vermont independent Bernie Sanders.

"The PRO Act will protect American workers and ensure that employers are held to fair standards," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm proud to support this landmark legislation that bolsters American workers' right to organize."

Among the PRO Act's provisions are:

  • Meaningful penalties for violating workers' rights. The National Labor Relations Board finally would have the authority to levy fines on employers for breaking labor law, with penalties up to $100,000 for repeat offenders in cases of illegal firings and serious economic harm. The bill also would allow the board to hold corporate executives and officers personally liable if they participate in violating workers' rights or are aware of violations and fail to prevent them.

  • Removing roadblocks to initial bargaining. The bill would set a timeline for negotiations and, as needed, mediation and arbitration. Employers would no longer get away with dragging their feet on first contracts — delays aimed at derailing new unions.

  • Ending captive-audience meetings. Employers would risk major backfire for forcing workers to listen to anti-union rhetoric or otherwise interfering with a representation election. In those cases, the bill would empower the NLRB to set aside an election defeat, certify the bargaining unit and order the employer to negotiate.

  • Clearing the path to justice. Unfair labor practice charges can take months or even years to resolve when workers are fired or otherwise punished for exercising their rights. The bill would require the NLRB to seek immediate injunctions in federal court to reinstate workers while their cases are pending — action that the current board, led by President Joe Biden's appointees, has been taking on its own since 2021.

  • The power to override right-to-work laws. On the books in 28 states, these laws allow freeloading workers to benefit from representation without paying dues, draining unions of the resources they need to fight for members. Under the PRO Act, unions could bargain with management for the right to collect dues from all workers in a unit.

  • Bolstering the right to strike and to support outside acts of solidarity. The bill clarifies that workers taking part in intermittent work stoppages have the legal right to do so, and it prohibits employers from permanently replacing striking workers. It also reinforces the First Amendment rights of workers to join outside strikes and boycotts without penalty.

  • Closing loopholes in labor law that erode workers' rights. Many employers routinely misclassify workers as independent contractors to avoid paying fair wages and benefits, or as supervisors to dodge overtime. The bill would make those practices illegal. It also would establish a "joint employer" standard so that workers employed by franchises or subcontractors would have the right to bargain collectively with all companies that control the terms and conditions of their jobs.

While passing the bill without a pro-worker majority in the U.S. House will be a steep uphill battle, International President Kenneth W. Cooper said he welcomes the debate.

"This is a conversation that needs to be on the table at all times because we know that people are listening," Cooper said. "Polls show that nearly three out of four Americans today support unions — a record number — because they understand how much unions can change the lives of workers and their families for the better.

"But the enemies of unions have been chipping away at our rights for generations, and they're going to keep at it until America's labor laws have real teeth again, which is what the PRO Act would do," he said. "It is the roadmap to better lives for millions more Americans."

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, a member of Portland, Ore., Local 125, put it this way:

"The PRO Act is how we level the playing field. It is how we stop the intimidation, the lies. This is how we let workers, not wealthy corporations, decide for themselves if they want the power of a union," she said.


AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, an IBEW member of Portland, Ore., Local 125, champions the PRO Act at a news conference on Capitol Hill after the bill was introduced for a third time in the U.S. House and Senate.