As the National Labor Relations Board reviews ballots from Amazon.com’s union election in Alabama, the U.S. labor movement is entering a pivotal moment that will likely define the future of worker organization for decades to come. The campaign to organize the more than 5,800 workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. has also drawn new political lines in the debate around the right to unionize. Progressive senators such as Bernie Sanders (I-VA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have rallied on behalf of the union, as expected. But other supporters, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). have also spoken out on behalf of the employees looking to organize, a surprise as Republicans typically support legislation that favors business and diminishes union efforts. “Here’s my standard: When the conflict is between working Americans and a company whose leadership has decided to wage culture war against working-class values, the choice is easy—I support the workers. And that’s why I stand with those at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse today,” wrote Rubio in an opinion piece for USA Today this month. The sudden shift comes as House Democrats approved a bill, The Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would make some of the most dramatic, and controversial, union-friendly changes to American labor law in decades. Labor advocates have called it the most important piece of labor legislation in generations, while big business groups say that it will harm independent contractors and bottom lines. The act would extend joint employer liability (in which an individual who is not on an organization’s payroll, and is contracted from another company, could still be considered their employee), expand the definition of employee by narrowing the definition of supervisor and independent contractors, simplify union election rules, end right-to-work protections that prohibit employees from being forced to pay union dues as a condition of their employment, allow for more strikes and make it more difficult for employers to replace workers on strike, and mandate initial collective bargaining agreements within as little as 120 days, amongst other things. It’s unlikely that the act will pass through the divided Senate without Democrats first eliminating the filibuster, an act that requires 60 votes to invoke cloture on legislative matters and prevents parties with a small majority from voting partisan bills into action. And while it may appear that some Republicans like Rubio have had a change of heart about union efforts, his support of Amazon workers in Alabama is actually linked to his opposition of the PRO Act. “What our nation desperately needs is not more oligopolies like Amazon or hostile relationships; what we need is a more productive relationship between labor and management,” he wrote in his opinion piece. “Legislation like the Democrats’ Protecting the Right to Organize Act would essentially mandate adversarial relations between labor and management.” Parts of the bill, however, could end up passing through the Senate and make their way to President Joe Biden’s desk, who has spoken out in support of the act. The thought has companies like Uber and Instacart, which rely on gig workers who are not considered employees, as a large part of their business model. The groups have long seen the writing on the wall, and have previously launched campaigns in California and New Jersey, states that already have their own version of the PRO Act, and have made it illegal for employers to misclassify workers as independent contractors.
App-based workersThe PRO Act would adopt the same test that California uses to determine a worker’s employment status, but only for the purposes of union organizing:
- The individual is free from control and direction in connection with the performance of the service, both under the contract for the performance of service and in fact.
- The service is performed outside the usual course of the business of the employer.
- The individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business of the same nature as that involved in the service performed.