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People hold placards during a protest in support of Amazon workers in Union Square, New York on February 20, 2021.

People hold placards during a protest in support of Amazon workers in Union Square, New York on February 20, 2021. (Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images)

House Passage of Historic Union Rights Bill Intensifies Pressure on Dem Senators to 'Stop Hiding Behind' Filibuster

"Once again, the key obstacle in the way of passing this legislation is the Jim Crow filibuster."

Jake Johnson

With the support of just five Republicans, the House of Representatives late Tuesday approved legislation that would significantly strengthen workers' right to organize in an effort to reverse decades worth of damage inflicted by corporations and their anti-labor allies in government.

Passed amid the closely watched union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act was applauded by labor unions, economists, and progressive advocacy groups as a historic step toward neutralizing so-called "right-to-work" laws in states across the nation and bolstering collective bargaining rights, reforms that would help boost wages, improve workplace conditions, and curb skyrocketing inequality.

"It's time for senators to stop hiding behind outdated rules and procedures like the filibuster and to pass the PRO Act so that workers can gain a voice at work."
—Chris Shelton, Communications Workers of America

One House Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), joined 205 Republicans in voting against the landmark bill, which aims to prevent companies from misclassifying employees as "independent contractors" in order to deny them protections and impose monetary penalties on businesses that violate workers' rights. The Biden White House endorsed the legislation in a statement (pdf) earlier this week.

"There is no more urgent time to protect the rights of working people," said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. "Workplace safety was won and enforced by unions—and without unions inequality runs rampant and our health declines. The PRO Act matters to all Americans and 225 members of the House of Representatives agreed when voting to make this law tonight. They voted to make the title 'essential workers' have meaning."

"Corporations, Wall Street, and the 1% have rigged the scales against workers," Nelson continued. "The PRO Act restores our full right to strike, crucial to collective bargaining and reaching agreements quicker, holds corporations and individuals accountable for interfering with a worker's free right to join a union, and defines all work as work—ending misclassification of workers."

But the celebrations that followed the House's passage of the PRO Act—a summary of which can be viewed here (pdf)—were tempered by the reality that, without decisive action from the U.S. Senate, the ambitious labor reform legislation will become yet another casualty of the legislative filibuster, an archaic rule that requires 60 votes to advance most legislation in the upper chamber. The House passed an earlier version of the PRO Act last year, but then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would not allow a vote on the measure.

With virtually no chance of convincing at least 10 members of the anti-union Senate Republican caucus to support the PRO Act, Ellen Sciales of the youth-led Sunrise Movement stressed in a statement Tuesday night that "once again, the key obstacle in the way of passing this legislation is the Jim Crow filibuster."

"What that means is we expect Biden and the Senate to fight for the passage of the PRO Act with the same vigor that labor groups fought with to make this opportunity possible," said Sciales. "The Senate must pass this legislation swiftly and Biden must follow through on his promise to pass it. If they cannot, the Senate must eliminate the filibuster or answer to our movement of labor unions, young people, and activists across the country."

Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America, echoed that message, declaring in a statement that "it's time for senators to stop hiding behind outdated rules and procedures like the filibuster and to pass the PRO Act so that workers can gain a voice at work and, in doing so, restore the voices of working and middle class Americans in our society."

Amid growing support among Senate Democrats for eliminating the 60-vote threshold, the executive board of the AFL-CIO—the largest federation of labor unions in the U.S. and a key backer of the PRO Act—is expected to meet Wednesday to determine its official position on the legislative filibuster, which is also a major obstacle in the way of voting rights and climate legislation, a minimum wage increase, immigration reform, and more.

Eliminating or reforming the filibuster would require the support of the entire Senate Democratic caucus plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris.

In a statement after the PRO Act cleared the House, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said that "we aren't interested in excuses, and we aren't interested in waiting."

"Working people have been patient long enough," said Trumka. "The PRO Act is our litmus test. If progress is delayed or denied yet again, the suffering of the past year will only get worse and working people will continue to pay the price of failed leadership."

"But if the Senate steps up to the plate and delivers generational change—the change we voted for—we will emerge from this crisis stronger than before" Trumka added. "Everyone deserves the basic protections and dignities that come with a union card. The day the PRO Act is signed into law, tens of millions more working people will finally be free to carry that power in our pockets."

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