Fresh off a high-profile loss against Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama, the union movement in America is more fired up than it's been in a generation.
Across the country, organizers are making calls to lawmakers, putting up billboards, and spreading the word about the PRO Act, a landmark bill that comes with several new worker protections, as well as the ability to override right-to-work laws, which ban unions from forcing workers to pay dues even if they benefit from union-led contracts.
For an embattled union movement — which represents just 10 percent of the country's workforce — the Protecting the Right to Organize Act is an historic opportunity to claw back legal protections and rights that have been long denied to workers.
"It's the most important piece of legislation that the labor movement has seen in 78 years, and it has a real chance for the first time in generations to transform how the labor movement interacts with the rest of the country," said Jim Williams, vice president and director of organizing at the The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.
IUPAT is just one of the unions pulling out all the stops to pass the PRO Act this legislative session. The AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S., has launched a seven-figure advertising campaign targeting states represented by Democratic senators who are still on the fence about the bill.
“We’re taking nothing for granted," said John Weber, a spokesperson for AFL-CIO. "The PRO Act is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen working people's rights on the job. That's why we're mobilizing every tool we have to make sure the Senate hears us loud and clear on both sides of the aisle."
At the moment, hold-outs include Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Mark Warner of Virginia. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was another skeptic, but he has since endorsed the bill, citing conversations with organized labor groups.
"After discussions with West Virginia labor organizations, who represent thousands of West Virginia workers, I am proud to announce my co-sponsorship of the PRO Act," Manchin said in a statement. "Nearly half of new unions fail to reach a contract within their first year because their employers won't even come to the table. That is plain wrong."
Winning over Manchin, who is known for siding with Republicans on key economic issues, was a major coup for labor organizers, but it didn't come easy.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has worked closely with labor unions throughout the PRO Act campaign, has made 650,000 calls to constituents to connect them with their representatives.
This marks the fledgling lefty group's first major foray into non-electoral national politics.
"We've done other national campaigns before, such as DSA for Bernie, but this is really our first major mobilization," said Chris Kutalik Cauthern, DSA communications director. "Our original intention was to be pretty modest with the phone dialer, but we realized to do this to scale we really needed to ramp up. So we set our first goal for 500,000 calls."
The organization blew past that goal in the first week and is now shooting for one million calls in the next few weeks, most of these now targeted at Arizona and Virginia.
Though measuring the precise impact of this kind of outreach is impossible, Cauthern said the DSA is confident it already played a role in flipping independent Maine Senator Angus King.
"He told leaders in the main AFL-CIO that he was getting a lot of calls," he said. "He didn't namecheck us, but I know who was making thousands and thousands of calls."
Every vote counts, as Democrats have only a slim majority, and could still run smack-dab into a filibuster, which could put the kibosh on the bill anyway. But to even get the chance at slipping past everyone's favorite parliamentary procedure, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the bill needs at least 50 co-sponsors to get a floor vote. Unions have made it clear that future political support depends on it.
"The Senate Majority Leader needs to know that if you can't get to 50, we can't be there for you guys in the future," Williams said.
Business interests are also aligning against the bill. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called the legislation "a litany of almost every failed idea from the past 30 years of labor policy" that "undermine worker rights, ensnare employers in unrelated labor disputes, disrupt the economy, and force individual Americans to pay union dues regardless of their wishes."
An advantage that the PRO Act has over previous pro-union bills, however, is support from the president. Biden included the measure in his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal and voiced support for unions as being crucial to the economic recovery.
"When you have the president of the United States openly talking about how to strengthen unions and how to strengthen the labor movement, it certainly makes this easier with members of the House and Senate," Williams said.
In addition, Biden on Monday signed an executive order creating a task force that would, over the next 180 days, explore ways to make it easier for workers to unionize. Whatever the task force comes up with, they'll have the recent situation in Bessemer as a complicated example of what future labor struggles could look like in the U.S.
Leveling the Playing Field
It might have been hard to tell in the excited lead-up to the unionization vote at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer six weeks ago, but many in the union movement were skeptical about their chances.
"Honestly, going into it, me and a number of others on staff were like 'I doubt we're going to win this,'" Cauthern said. "The reality is it really showed the why of the PRO Act. Unless we level the playing field enough that we can actually have a fair chance at winning union organizing, it's going to be one loss after another."
Cauthern, like many others, argues that Amazon intimidated workers. This echoes an appeal filed by the union behind the drive to the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Amazon interfered with the employees' right to a free and fair election.
The PRO Act, which also contains new rules that would penalize companies for infringing upon workers' rights, takes aim at exactly these kinds of practices.
"It's indicative of why the PRO Act is so important because the things that Amazon did during that election is exactly why there needs to be labor law reform," Williams said. "I don't think it in any way puts cold water on the labor movement. If anything, it invigorated the labor movement to push for reform."
Indeed, labor history is riddled with such failures, some of which presaged successes that came later on. The PRO Act is designed to restore some of those basic protections and rights that workers gained during those early fights, but which were lost in recent decades as the country turned away from organized labor.
However, some argue that labor struggles in the U.S. are so different today, that arguably a new kind of organizing is necessary.
"I can understand why organized labor wants the PRO Act," said Bryant Simon, a professor of labor history at Temple University. "But is the Amazon campaign yet another reason to really rethink the model of 1930s-era collective bargaining, and are the state structures that are involved there almost an impediment to organizing workers?"
Simon said the PRO Act is really more of a doubling down on the old system, rather than an innovation. He noted how work in America has fragmented into so many different categories, such as the service industry and gig economy, that organizers face a very different situation than union movements of the past.
"I'm in favor of it, but it's a really tough model to organize people in right now," he said. "It's really cumbersome. It's really expensive. It's really hard to understand, and it leaves all kinds of opportunities for management to upend things."
One area where organizers could pain purchase, he added, is in workplace safety, which was a big part of the Bessemer struggle. Many workers were fighting simply for the right to a bathroom break.
"This was not a wage struggle," Simon said. "It was really about the way that management had made the work impossible to keep up with and it was essentially destroying peoples' bodies and their spirit."