A key Senate
Democrat hinted on Wednesday that he would support his party's effort to overhaul labor law
and increase union membership through historic reforms.
Sen. Mark Kelly
(R-AZ) told Stardia that he supports the “overall goals” of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, and that he is willing to use budget reconciliation
rules to pass portions of it.
The bill is the most ambitious attempt to reform collective bargaining in generations, and Kelly is one of only a few moderate Democrats
who has not signed on in support. The senator said his thinking changed after speaking with employers and workers in Arizona
“I would like to see some changes,” Kelly said, adding, “I do have some concerns with the legislation, specifically things about who qualifies as an independent contractor
, which employers frequently use to their advantage. In other cases, I believe people
should be able to be independent contractors.”
Democrats do not currently have enough support to pass the PRO Act in its entirety, but budget reconciliation may provide a path for one or more key provisions to be implemented on a party-line vote, and Kelly's support would be critical to such an effort.
penalties for employers who illegally bust unions
are one critical provision in the PRO Act that Democrats believe could pass under reconciliation rules.
The penalties for what are known as unfair labor practices under current law are so weak that there is little incentive to follow the law. For example, if an employer is found to have illegally fired a worker for attempting to organize a union, the employer is generally only required to pay back wages to the worker, minus any wages the worker earned elsewhere since he was canned.
Many employers who violate the National Labor Relations Act are simply required to post a notice in the workplace
stating that they have violated the law.
The PRO Act would significantly increase the costs of breaking the law: each unfair labor practice would be punishable by a civil fine of up to $50,000. Unions hope that such a measure will change the organizing landscape by pressuring employers not to retaliate against union supporters or bargain in bad faith over union contracts.
Many Democrats are confident that the fines
will be approved under reconciliation rules because they raise money for the federal government. A proposal must have a significant impact
on federal spending and revenue in order to comply with reconciliation.
When asked about passing parts of the bill through reconciliation, Kelly said, "Depending on how it's done, I'm not necessarily opposed to it."
The PRO Act as a whole would do far more than just increase penalties for union-busting; it would repeal “right to work” laws currently in place in the majority of states
, make it easier for newly unionized workforces to secure their first contract, and strengthen the right to strike and boycott, among other things.
One of the most contentious aspects is how the law would extend collective bargaining rights to “independent contractors” who are not employees, a provision Kelly expressed concern about. Unions have said they want the law passed in its entirety, but the PRO Act’s Democratic
backers may be willing to set aside such provisions for the time
being if it means passing other parts of the bill through reconciliation.
Kelly has sought to cultivate a centrist persona since being elected to the Senate in a special election
in 2020, joining other moderate senators in drafting bipartisan infrastructure
legislation and declining to take a firm stance on eliminating the filibuster
. He is up for reelection next year, and a number of Republican
candidates have already begun to line up to challenge
However, Kelly has taken positions in the Senate that have raised eyebrows for a Democrat representing a GOP-heavy state like Arizona, such as his vote earlier this year to raise the federal minimum wage
to $15, and his decision to embrace that effort, as well as the goals of the PRO Act, stands in stark contrast to Arizona’s senior Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema
, who does not face reelection unopposed.