If Washington’s grand infrastructure talks collapse, as they likely will, expect the usual finger-pointing from both sides. Don’t mention the donkey in the room: Big Labor.
President Biden has a union problem already. Along with climate change, Mr. Biden’s top agenda item is boosting organized labor—a payoff to the unions that spent big to propel him to victory. So far, though, it’s going nowhere, and it’s a big reason Democrats may kill an infrastructure deal.
Democratic presidents traditionally work their union magic through the National Labor Relations Board, via rulings that stack the deck for labor. And indeed, within hours of inauguration, Mr. Biden took the unprecedented step of firing NLRB General Counsel
Mr. Biden immediately installed a new acting general counsel, who in turn immediately dismantled most of Mr. Robb’s legacy. In normal times, labor unions would be thrilled.
But these aren’t normal times; for unions, they’re desperate ones. It’s grown clear to labor leaders that the usual game-rigging is no longer enough to convince Americans to sign up for union bondage. The Obama NLRB devoted itself to granting union favors, yet unions lost members in the Obama years. The share of American workers in unions fell to 10.7% in 2016—its lowest level on record. Only 6.3% of private-sectors workers are today in unions, and even public union membership has stalled.
Thus the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—a sweeping bill that would empower unions to force Americans into their ranks. The PRO Act would nullify all 27 state right-to work laws, strip companies of basic rights to make the case to employees against unionization campaigns, give the NLRB power to impose sweeping fines on supposed corporate labor violations, outlaw most independent contractors, and let unions bully workers into agreeing to unions via public “card check” pledges rather than secret ballots.
Unions have made clear that PRO Act passage will be their only measure of this administration and Congress. In a call last month, union leaders told Senate Democrats’ campaign arm it risks losing union money and support in 2022 if it didn’t get with the PRO-gram. AFL-CIO spokesman
recently warned that while Mr. Biden’s first 100 days were nice and all, success would “require the Senate to pass the PRO Act.”
The House did so in 2020 and again this March. The trouble is in the Senate, where three of the 50 Democrats have yet to sign on to the bill—Virginia’s
and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and
And all 50 Senate Democrats wouldn’t be enough. Unlike much of the Biden spending agenda, the PRO Act is entirely about labor policy—and therefore unlikely to qualify for a 51-vote “budget reconciliation” bill. The Congressional Budget Office in 2019 scored an earlier version of the PRO Act and found it raised a puny $39 million over 10 years—making it all but budget-irrelevant. That means backers need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
Which explains the White House’s strategy in March of working to attach the PRO Act to an infrastructure bill. The administration did so on the grounds that highways and bridges should be built by people with “good-quality union jobs.” While it got little attention, Mr. Biden closely linked the PRO Act to his infrastructure pitch in his April 28 congressional address, and
Sen. Tim Kaine
(D., Va) told Roll Call this week that getting the PRO Act into the bill is a top priority.
Democrats know GOP negotiators will never swallow that, so they’re focusing on a few key labor priorities. A basic demand will be an expansion of the Davis-Bacon Act, requiring union “prevailing wages” on any projects funded by the bill. But negotiators would also love to slip in provisions that impose stiff new pro-union requirements on companies or contractors that want infrastructure dollars. It’s unclear where Republicans stand on this effort to hike prices and dictate work rules.
It may not matter. Labor leaders have taken Mr. Biden’s infrastructure pitch and run with it. AFL-CIO President
in a recent op-ed wrote that infrastructure “investments alone are far from sufficient” and require the PRO Act. Were the White House to sign off on a major “jobs” compromise that had few or no union provisions, Big Labor would have a meltdown, especially absent any guarantee that Democrats will do it by other, bare-knuckle means. While
Sen. Joe Manchin
(D., W.Va.) recently endorsed the labor bill, he also reiterated his commitment to the filibuster. And Ms. Sinema has neither signed on to the PRO Act nor renounced the filibuster.
For all the headlines about progress in talks, the Biden White House has yet to move an inch off its original proposal—even as the GOP recently signaled it would be willing to agree to as much as $800 billion in spending. The pressure from progressive unions for the administration to accede to all their radical demands is intense. Don’t expect Mr. Biden to buck them.
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Appeared in the May 21, 2021, print edition.