The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act seems unlikely to succeed in the Senate due to a lack of Republican support — but it has the support of the majority of likely voters, according to a new poll from Vox and Data for Progress.
The act, a sweeping labor rights bill, would strengthen unions through overriding Republican-led “right to work” state laws, which impede unions’ abilities by allowing workers to join without paying dues. It would also penalize companies that restrict union activity, and would bestow independent contractors — such as drivers for Uber and Lyft — with the right to organize and collectively bargain.
The bill passed the House in March, with the support of just five Republicans and all but one Democrat. It has the support of President Joe Biden, and is part of his American Jobs Plan. Now, the bill faces long odds in the Senate, where all 50 Democrats and 10 Republicans, absent filibuster reform, would need to approve of the legislation for it to pass.
Predictably, dozens of unions — traditional Democratic allies — have lined up in favor of the bill, whereas business groups — who typically align with Republicans — are opposed.
Among likely voters, however, there is less of a partisan divide. The Vox/DFP survey — of 1,000 likely voters and fielded June 4 to 6 — found 40 percent of Republicans support the PRO Act, along with 74 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents. Overall, the poll found the bill has the support of 59 percent of likely voters.
The poll also found strong bipartisan support for public sector unions (covering workers like teachers, firefighters, and police officers): 82 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of independents, and 54 percent of Republicans said those who work in public sectors should be able to form and join unions.
Respondents also strongly supported pro-union remarks that President Joe Biden has made: Pollsters specifically asked about a February video message in which Biden extolled the values of collective bargaining.
“America wasn’t built by Wall Street, it was built by the middle class, and unions built the middle class,” Biden said. “Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice, for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. ... There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No employee should confront workers about their union preferences.”
The poll found that 65 percent of likely voters — including 60 percent of independents and 42 percent of Republicans, despite the use of Biden’s name in the question — agreed with the president’s quote. Only 28 percent disapproved.
Likely voters were found to significantly disapprove of each of five common union-busting techniques that businesses employ asked about in the poll. Forcing workers to attend meetings espousing the risks of unionization without the opportunity to hear alternative viewpoints and having supervisors tell their employees that unionizing would create an adversarial work environment drew the strongest disapproval — with 63 percent and 60 percent of likely voters disapproving, respectively.
The PRO Act directly tackles these company strategies, banning such captive audience meetings and penalizing managers’ coercive anti-union messages and threats.
A majority of likely Republican voters disapproved of every tactic that the poll covered.
Democrats and Republicans diverged on the topic of what unions are for, and how they affect businesses. When asked if unions are essential to ensuring workers are compensated fairly, 74 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents said they were, but only 39 percent of Republicans agreed. Meanwhile, 48 percent of Republicans said unions add unneeded complexity to companies’ operations, a sentiment shared by 31 percent of independents and only 17 percent of Democrats.
Overall, the poll suggests that Republican voters’ views of unions are nuanced, but also that the Republican congressional position does not reflect public opinion.
Public support has not translated to congressional support
For all of the bipartisan public support, Senate Republicans remain steadfast in their opposition to the PRO Act.
Even Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who supported the recent unionization efforts of Alabama Amazon workers, say legislation like the PRO Act would push the US towards losing its global economic standing; and that it allows for left-wing policy to overrun workplaces.
“Legislation like the Democrats’ Protecting the Right to Organize Act would essentially mandate adversarial relations between labor and management,” he wrote in a March op-ed in USA Today.
The bill has stalled in the upper chamber without the public support of any Senate Republicans; three Democrats have been hesitant to sponsor the legislation. It has become a sticking point in negotiations over President Biden’s infrastructure plan, which calls for pro-labor provisions included in the PRO Act to be enacted. If Democrats decide to pursue infrastructure in a bipartisan fashion — as centrist Democrats are interested in doing — Republicans may be able to exclude the PRO Act from any potential deal.
The bill’s critics argue that the PRO Act would hurt small businesses, drive up unemployment, deny independent contractors the freedom to freelance, and impose undue burdens on companies that would, under the legislation, have to treat many current independent contractors as employees who are eligible for benefits.
In a recent op-ed in the Hill, Mario H. Lopez — the president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a right-leaning advocacy organization — said the PRO Act would destabilize businesses that employ independent contractors.
“The intentionally strict new labor standard would destroy the business models of countless companies, resulting in layoffs and economic turmoil,” Lopez wrote. “This regulatory change wouldn’t just impact independent contractors, either — its consequences would ripple throughout the business landscape, affecting temporary employees, freelancers and even the self-employed.”
Proponents say that line of thinking is an exaggeration — noting that independent contractor status would still exist, but that its definition would just be narrowed, with the hopes that doing so would help many to avoid exploitative misclassification. Reclassification would also give those who are freelancers greater collective bargaining rights. Furthermore, they note, the bill would not affect state contractor designations for the purposes of tax status or benefit eligibility.
And the Vox/DFP poll found most likely voters don’t share concerns about giving freelancers more bargaining power: When asked whether they would support the reclassification of freelancers even if it meant paying more for goods and services, 56 percent of likely voters, including 40 percent of Republicans, 72 percent of Democrats, and 51 percent of independents said they would. Just 32 percent of overall voters said they’d be opposed to the idea.
The US Chamber of Commerce is also strongly opposed to the PRO Act, calling the measure “extreme” and claiming — misleadingly — that the bill would force individuals to pay union dues regardless of their preferences, a reference to the proposed striking of right to work laws. In actuality, the bill would override state legislation that allows workers to join unions for free, effectively weakening their power, and instead giving unions the ability to mandate dues for members if they choose.
But union representatives and their Democratic allies in Congress champion the PRO Act as a much-needed update to New Deal-era labor laws that have been steadily eroded over time. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the lead sponsor of the legislation in the House, argued that by easing the obstacles to forming and joining unions, there will be greater balance in the employer-worker dynamic, as companies could more easily be held accountable for workplace abuses. He also sees strengthened unions as critical to closing racial and gender wage gaps.
“When workers have the power to stand together and form a union, they have higher pay, better benefits, and safer working conditions,” Scott said in a 2020 press release, when the House first passed the PRO Act. “Strong unions not only benefit those represented by unions, they benefit non-union workers and the children of union members.”
Vox/DFP’s polling found that a majority of voters prefer Scott’s stance over that of the chamber and other business allies. But unless Republican senators reconsider their stances on the bill — or unless Senate Democrats reform the filibuster, allowing them to pass legislation with a simply majority of votes — voters’ support of the PRO Act will be stymied.