After Amazon waged an aggressive propaganda and intimidation campaign to successfully stave off unionization at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama earlier this month, the labor movement and its allies are now making progress in an effort to pass landmark legislation that would give workers across the country a fair shot at forming a union.
Passed by the Democratic-led House of Representatives in March and supported by President Joe Biden, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would dramatically reform labor law in the United States. Among other measures, it would prevent private-sector employers from using the kinds of underhanded anti-union tactics recently on display in Bessemer, and would also strengthen unions by banning right-to-work laws. And now just three Democratic senators stand in the way of it coming to the Senate floor for a vote.
The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) is spearheading a campaign to get the legislation to President Biden’s desk, backed by a coalition that includes 180 unions, 50 state labor federations and building trades councils, environmental groups like the Sunrise Movement and progressive advocacy networks like Indivisible.
When the House sent the PRO Act to the Senate last month, the bill had the endorsement of all but five of the 50 senators who sit on the Democratic side of the aisle — West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Maine’s Angus King, Virginia’s Mark Warner, and Arizona’s Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema.
But in just the past week, amid growing grassroots pressure, King and Manchin have signed on as co-sponsors. They reversed their position in large part thanks to a massive phone-banking drive organized by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which so far has made over 525,000 calls and sent 134,000 texts in the five senators’ home states.
King’s office was reportedly “inundated” with phone calls about the PRO Act in the weeks before he decided to change course, as was Manchin’s. As one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate and a key swing vote, Manchin’s about-face is particularly significant for the campaign.
“The PRO Act has bipartisan support from the American people. We believe the pace of our campaign reflects that,” said IUPAT general vice president Jim Williams. “We’re glad that Senator Manchin and Senator King have come on board in the last week and we fully anticipate the remaining senators will in the near future.”
With Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pledging to bring the PRO Act to the Senate floor if it boasts 50 co-sponsors, only three Democratic senators now stand in the way of advancing the historic labor law reform: Warner, Kelly and Sinema.
Warner, the second wealthiest senator after Mitt Romney, received nearly $45,000 in campaign contributions from Amazon executives including Jay Carney and Dave Clark in the most recent election cycle. For her part, Sinema recently drew the ire of progressives after voting against the $15 minimum wage with an enthusiastic “thumbs down.”
Kelly — a former astronaut and Sinema’s fellow Arizonan — is up for reelection in 2022. He voted in favor of the $15 minimum wage and supports some progressive legislation like the For the People Act, which would expand voting rights. Winning Kelly’s support for the PRO Act is considered especially crucial, since it is widely believed Sinema won’t get on board before he does.
If Kelly, Sinema and Warner are successfully pressured into co-sponsoring the bill, its most likely path to the president’s desk would be through reforming the filibuster — a move endorsed by the AFL-CIO that Biden recently came out in favor of. Short of that, the legislation would need the support of at least ten Republican Senators to pass, which is highly unlikely.
Demonstrating his commitment to the PRO Act, Biden has included it as part of his $2.2 trillion infrastructure package, which Senate Democrats may attempt to pass through budget reconciliation. The Senate parliamentarian, however, could scuttle the effort by saying that labor law reform should not be passed through reconciliation, the same problem that helped stymie the $15 minimum wage in February.
Well aware of these obstacles, the coalition to pass the PRO Act is preparing to ramp up the pressure. The AFL-CIO is planning a week of action beginning April 26 and culminating on May Day, which will kick off a summer of organizing and mobilizing to get the legislation across the finish line. Organizers say over 1,000 events to demand passage of the PRO Act are scheduled all over the country as part of the week of action, including rallies, town halls and car caravans.
“We’re going to dig our heels in and get to work,” Williams said. “Our coalition will continue to mobilize the working class in this country to fight for the PRO Act.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.