Landmark labor bill clears U.S. House with Michigan Dems’ support

Detroit Federation of Teachers union President Terrence Martin and Executive Vice President Lakia Wilson join UAW members on the picket line | Ken Coleman

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed landmark pro-labor legislation Thursday that backers said could begin to reverse the country’s decades-long decline in union membership.

The bill passed largely along party lines by a vote of 224-194. The Michigan delegation was split 7-7, with all seven Democrats voting in favor and all six Republicans, plus U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.) voting no. All Democrats also were co-sponsors.

The measure, known as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, would strengthen protections for workers who organize for higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions. 

Proponents said it would lead to a surge in union membership, increase workers’ standard of living and narrow the wealth and income divide. 

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“It is not a coincidence that as union membership has declined, income inequality has soared,” U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) said on the House floor Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) said that “unions fought for all of us to have a 40-hour work week, healthcare benefits, time off, safe workplace and many more critical benefits. When unions are strong, all workers benefit.”

House Republicans disagreed — and charged Democrats with being in the pocket of “Big Labor.”

The bill is “one of the most anti-worker, anti-small business bills to be considered by Congress in decades,” said U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill. 

It is a “liberal Democrat wish list designed to enrich and empower union bosses and trial lawyers at the expense of rank-and-file workers and small businesses.”

Odds that the bill will become law this year are slim. 

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Trump veto threat

A companion measure in the U.S. Senate isn’t expected to pass the GOP-controlled chamber. Both of Michigan’s U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) are co-sponsors.

The White House issued a veto threat Wednesday.

The legislation would “hurt workers in several ways,” the Trump administration stated. It would kill jobs, destroy the gig economy, violate workers’ privacy, restrict freedom of association, repeal state Right to Work (RTW) laws, and undo the president’s deregulatory agenda, it said.

President Donald Trump speaks to 5000 contractors at the Shell Chemicals Petrochemical Complex on August 13, 2019 in Monaca, Pennsylvania. | Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

But GOP opposition doesn’t deter its backers, who say the legislation sends a signal about what Democrats would do if they had more power in Washington. 

Nationwide, about 10% of the nation’s workers are members of unions, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s about half the rate in 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available.

Michigan has a higher percentage, although the state has seen a sharp decline in union membership since recent decades, dropping from 26% in 1989 to less than 14% of the state’s 4.3 million workers last year. Republicans passed a RTW law in 2012. 

The decline comes as heavily unionized sectors, such as manufacturing, transportation and public utilities, make up a smaller portion of the economy than they did in the past.

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Also credited is an uptick in recent decades in state Right to Work laws, which bar workers from being required to join unions, but they still receive benefits won in contract negotiations and representation in employment matters. 

“The right to organize is rooted in the First Amendment of the Constitution,” U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, said Thursday. But strong “union busting” efforts have eroded these rights in recent decades, he said.

Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, said at a press conference Wednesday that the bill would combat the “union-busting industry” and called it “the most significant piece of legislation” to come before the House this year.

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Democrats on the presidential campaign trail also support the bill.

U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have signed on to the Senate version of the bill. Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and former Vice President Joe Biden also support it, according to their campaign websites. Ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also backs the bill, according to a campaign spokesperson.

Business groups, meanwhile, have voiced strong opposition to the bill. 

In a letter urging House lawmakers to reject the bill, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark wrote: “The legislation would harm the economy in myriad ways be enacting a slew of harmful labor policies.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.