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In furious remarks on the floor of the House, Democratic congressman Tim Ryan criticised House Republicans over their fierce opposition to a sweeping expansion of labour rights that aims for stronger protections for workers organising a union.
“Heaven forbid we pass something that is going to help the damn workers in the United States of America,” the Ohio Democrat said on Tuesday. “Heaven forbid we tilt the balance that has been going in the wrong direction for 50 years.”
If signed into law, the White House-baked Protecting the Right to Organise Act, or Pro Act, would constitute one of the largest labour provisions since the New Deal era, taking aim at so-called “right to work” laws in 27 states.
Republicans in the House of Representatives revived familiar claims arguing that expanded union support would crush businesses, as employers struggle to reopen on thin margins in the wake of the pandemic’s economic fallout.
US Rep Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the top Republican on the House Education and Labour Committee, called the bill a “a left-wing wish list of union boss priorities.”
Mr Ryan said: “We talk about pensions? You complain. You talk about the minimum wage increase? You complain. We talk about giving them the right to organise? You complain. But if we’re passing the tax cut here, you would all be getting in line to vote ‘yes’ for it.”
In a sharp rebuke of the GOP’s current culture war grievances, he said: “Now stop talking about Dr Seuss and start working with us on behalf of the American workers.”
His comment refers to a decision from the Dr Seuss Foundation to stop producing six books with racist and insensitive images and text, which right-wing media and many GOP lawmakers have assailed as a Democratic “cancel culture” crusade.
The Pro Act would close loopholes in current labour law by amending the National Labour Relations Act and prohibiting employer retribution against workers seeking to organise.
It would also give union organisers greater control over union voting and organising, and allow the National Labour Relations Board to fine companies that do not comply with its orders.
The measure would also prohibit companies like Uber and Lyft from relying on “independent contractor” classifications to avoid providing workplace protections.
It follows decades of legislative attacks that have undermined organised labour power, once critical to the Democratic Party and which president Joe Biden has sought to elevate in his pitch to restore the nation’s middle class with his administration’s economic agenda.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the bill “the crown jewel of our pro-worker agenda” that “restores and strengthens the power of unions to fight for better wages and conditions” after years of stagnation, and an effort among Republicans to court labour by invoking cultural grievances.
But the proposal will face a difficult path in a divided Senate, where the bill needs at least 60 votes to pass.
The president – who has said he would be the “most pro-union president” in US history – has hailed the Pro Act as a means to “dramatically enhance the power of workers to organise and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.”
“As America works to recover from the devastating challenges of deadly pandemic, an economic crisis, and reckoning on race that reveals deep disparities, we need to summon a new wave of worker power to create an economy that works for everyone,” the president said in a statement on Tuesday.
He urged Congress to send the legislation to his desk “so we can seize the opportunity to build a future that reflects working people’s courage and ambition, and offers not only good jobs with a real choice to join a union – but the dignity, equity, shared prosperity and common purpose the hardworking people who built this country and make it run deserve.”
A statement from the White House Office of Management and Budget in support of the bill echoed Mr Biden’s statements: “America was not built by Wall Street. It was built by the middle class, and unions built the middle class. Unions put power in the hands of workers.”
The bill also has the support of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, has urged the Pro Act’s passage.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, which has killed tens of thousands of front line workers, it is more important than ever that working people have the right to rely on the protection of a union contract,” the organisation said in a statement.
The bill’s passage in the House follows a high-profile effort among roughly 5,800 mostly Black Amazon workers in Alabama who are voting through 29 March to determine their membership with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union – establishing what labour leaders and lawmakers believe is of the biggest union elections in US history.
It would also mark the company’s first-ever labour union.
A group of House Democrats travelled to Alabama last week to support the union drive, and in a video statement supporting workers’ rights to form unions and warning against employee intimidation, he mentioned “workers in Alabama” but did not explicitly say Amazon.
“It’s a vitally important choice – one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers,” he said. “Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.”