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Facing Filibuster of PRO Act, Senate Democrats to Add Employer Fines to Budget Bill

WASHINGTON—Trying to sidestep an almost certain filibuster of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act by Senate Republicans, Congressional Democrats plan to include one provision of it in a forthcoming budget-reconciliation bill: allowing the National Labor Relations Board to fine employers for unfair labor practices such as firing workers for trying to organize a union.

That provision will be added to the budget bill, which cannot be filibustered by the Senate, Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and House Education and Labor Committee chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.) announced July 14. The fines qualify to be included because they would be government revenue.

“The Senate needs to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act in its entirety, but any step we can take to defend workers’ rights is meaningful,” Scott, the bill’s lead House sponsor, said in a statement. “Under current law, the fine you pay for a parking ticket is greater than the fine companies pay for violating workers’ right to organize a union. Creating financial penalties for unlawful anti-union activity will finally deter employers from violating the law and will better protect workers’ rights.”

The House passed the PRO Act in March.

Currently, the NLRB can only order an employer to reinstate an unfairly terminated worker and pay them what they would have earned since they were axed, minus anything they’ve made on other jobs in the interim. The PRO Act would enable the board to levy fines of up to $50,000, depending on the severity of the offense and the size of the company. Repeat offenders, particularly those who’d fired workers for union activity twice within five years, could be fined up to $100,000.

The Congressional Budget Office projected that this would bring in $45 million over the next 10 years, Congressional Democratic aides involved with labor issues told LaborPress. It would likely bring in more, they said, because the current penalties are so weak that many workers don’t bother to file complaints. There is a noticeable fluctuation in the number of complaints filed correlating with which party is in power, they added — more when there is a Democratic majority on the NLRB, fewer when anti-labor Republicans dominate the board. 

The budget bill is also expected to include an additional $1 billion for the NLRB over the next 10 years, the aides said. The agency’s annual budget has been frozen at about $275 million since the 2012-13 fiscal year. The additional money, they added, would enable it to hire more staff, reversing the attrition during the Trump administration, and beef up enforcement — thus bringing in more revenue.

However, virtually none of the PRO Act’s other provisions would qualify as budgetary: repealing the federal laws that ban sympathy strikes as “secondary boycotts”; voiding state “right to work for less” laws, preventing employers from forcing workers to listen to anti-union messages, and more. 

The AFL-CIO began a week of protests demanding that the Senate pass the bill on July 18, planning actions near the local offices of all 100 senators. They include rallies outside the Virginia offices of Sen. Mark Warner, one of the three Democrats who have not yet endorsed the PRO Act; canvassing in the Phoenix area near those of Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, the other two; a rally in Fairbanks, Alaska at the office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the handful of Republicans they hope might be persuaded; and one scheduled for July 22 outside the Madison office of Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), a likely lost cause.

On July 18, New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento, speaking at a rally with Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, called the PRO Act “the most significant worker-empowerment legislation since the Great Depression.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) endorsed the bill in April, but has repeatedly opposed eliminating the filibuster, on the grounds that it would lead to one-party rule in the Senate.

The filibuster has become much more common since the 1960s, when segregationist southern Democrats tied up the Senate floor for months in futile attempts to stop the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. To sustain a filibuster, senators no longer need to hold the floor and block all other Senate business. They merely need to get at least 41 members to declare that they intend to filibuster a bill, and the legislation is stalled until 60 senators vote to cut off debate.

Last month, Senate Republicans filibustered the For the People Act, a broad attempt to restore Voting Rights Act provisions weakened by Supreme Court decisions diluting the definition of racial discrimination, limit gerrymandering, and pre-empt the welter of state voter-suppression laws passed this year. On July 19, almost 100 women were arrested after they blocked traffic near the Capitol, chanting in call-and-response, “Do the ladies want voting rights? Yeah, yeah!”

The protest, called the Women’s Moral Monday March, was demanding that the Senate pass the For the People Act and a national minimum wage of $15 an hour before it goes home for its August recess. It was organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, as part of a series of protests leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6.

“We don’t want the Senate to go into recess until they have ended the filibuster and restored the Voting Rights Act,” the Rev. Kazimir Brown of the Poor People’s Campaign said during an online broadcast of the march.

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