Union leaders told the Senate Democrats' campaign arm in a private call Wednesday not to expect them to back lawmakers in upcoming elections unless they coalesce behind the pro-labor Protecting the Right to Organize Act, three sources told POLITICO.
One lawmaker, in particular, became the center of attention, two sources said: Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), one of only three senators in the majority who have yet to sign onto the PRO Act and who is expected to face a tough reelection battle next year.
Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Virginia’s Mark Warner have also not backed the measure. The package thus far has 47 Senate cosponsors — 45 Democrats, two independents — leaving it well short of the 60 “yes” votes needed to overcome the filibuster. But unions see it as a litmus test.
The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades was among the labor groups that made the comments to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, sources said. An official at the union said it has also made it clear to Kelly, Sinema and Warner, as well as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, that it will not support lawmakers who aren't in favor of the bill.
"We've been vocal and telling everyone that," the person said. "No money, no support of PRO."
Losing unions’ support ahead of 2022 could be devastating to Democrats, who are looking to maintain — and, ideally, build on — their razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate in the upcoming midterm elections. It could also be a blow to Kelly, who is expected to face a tough path to reelection next year.
Sinema and Warner are not up for reelection in 2022.
Organized labor has long been a top financial backer of the party: Unions contributed $27.5 million to President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign and other groups that supported him.
Kelly, who was elected to the late Sen. John McCain’s seat last year, was not the intended focus of the call with the DSCC — rather, it was meant to discuss unions’ support of Democrats more broadly and, one source said, their prioritization of the PRO Act.
The legislation is a wide-reaching overhaul of labor laws that would make it easier for workers to form unions, including by expanding collective bargaining rights to independent contractors. It has been a priority for unions — and Democratic leadership — for years.
The House passed it under Trump, but it was never taken up by the then-GOP-controlled Senate. The House advanced it again this year; it has since stalled amid a shortfall of support in the upper chamber, despite Democrats’ newly won majority.
"If Senate Democrats won't try to do labor law reform now, when exactly is it they can promise that they will?” a person familiar with the Wednesday call said. “It's been decades. The time is now."
Biden, a self-described “union man,” promised on the campaign trail that he would see the measure enacted — and included it in his proposal for infrastructure reform. But while it gained some GOP support when it passed the House, it still faces fierce opposition from most Republicans and corporate America, who maintain that it would cripple employers enduring an already-challenging economy.
During the Wednesday call, unions — including the IUPAT, Communications Workers of America, and American Federation of Government Employees — made clear to the DSCC that the party needs to get lawmakers like Kelly in line and clear the PRO Act to Biden’s desk for his signature. If it can’t, they may have to consider withholding their support, they said.
Unions "underscored the importance of the PRO Act to labor," another person familiar with the call said. "The intent was to underline the importance of labor’s support to Democrats generally and the importance of the PRO Act to union members in both the private and public sectors."
Jacob Peters, a spokesperson for Kelly, said: “Senator Kelly is evaluating the legislation and speaking about it with stakeholders in Arizona as he focuses on building an economic recovery that benefits working Arizonans who have been hit hard by the pandemic. As always he puts a high value on bipartisanship and makes decisions based on what is best for Arizona.”
A DSCC aide confirmed there was a pre-scheduled briefing Wednesday with union leaders to discuss the Senate map and state of play.
Democrats pursued many of the same policies as the PRO Act via a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act under former President Barack Obama — but his administration failed to see the legislation across the finish line despite Democratic majorities in both chambers, choosing instead to spend its political capital on other White House priorities like health care.
In the wake of Biden’s inclusion of the PRO Act in his infrastructure proposal, organized labor won another small battle earlier this week when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced he would cosponsor the bill.
“This legislation will level the playing field,” Manchin said Monday at a National Press Club event with the United Mine Workers of America. “I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to move this bill through a legislative process.”
Businesses were quick to condemn the move in a harbinger of the pushback Kelly could face if he signs onto the bill. The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, which includes organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Association, labeled it “anti-worker legislation that invades employees’ privacy and will kill West Virginia jobs.”
“It is very disappointing that Senator Manchin has chosen to side with union bosses over West Virginia’s workers and small businesses, especially during a time of economic turmoil,” CDW Chair Kristen Swearingen said. “We hope Manchin will reconsider co-sponsoring this legislation as his legacy of bipartisanship will be irrevocably tainted.”