Pro-worker measures among pile of unfinished congressional business
Bills already passed by Congression but held up by McConnell would make $15 the national minimum wage and would make it much easier to unionize. | Lynne Sladky/AP

WASHINGTON—Imagine 400 airplanes circling in an endless holding pattern over Chicago’s tremendously busy O’Hare Airport. Now, as Congress returned to Washington on Jan. 7, you know what the U.S. Senate looks like.

The difference is the Senate’s “pilot,”  right-wing Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is at the controls. So those “planes” – 400 bills, many of them important to workers – may never land at all.

McConnell is the biggest traffic tie-up. But he’s not the only one. First the Senate has to get the impeachment trial of GOP President Donald Trump out of the way. And no sooner than that gets done, if it’s in January, then the 2020 presidential campaign will be on us in earnest.

Starting with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 and the New Hampshire primary eight days later, the race for the White House will suck a lot of oxygen out of the body politic.

And of course Trump has been campaigning for re-election unofficially since even before he took office – he actually registered his re-election committee with federal officials in late 2015 – and officially since summer 2019.

The campaign will give workers leverage: They can use appearances by campaigning hopefuls to get, affirm and enforce commitments to workers’ causes, both for specific legislation and to affect long-term issues.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka repeatedly makes that point clear. If you’re openly, vocally and specifically with workers, we’ll work for you. If not, not. And we’ll hold you to it.

That means getting and enforcing candidate pledges to make the comprehensive pro-worker labor law reform, the Pro Act, law in 2021, come hell, high water or the corporate criminals’ campaign of falsehoods, fabrications and distortions against it. And that’s just one specific legislative action awaiting lawmakers’ final approval. Others include:

Equal pay for equal work. Like so many other measures, the Equal Pay Act, pushed by workers, women and sponsoring Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., is languishing in the “socialist” pigeonhole proclaimed by McConnell. It’ll take tremendous pressure, especially on the 22 Republican senators seeking re-election, to move it.

Raising the minimum wage.  Another “socialist” idea McConnell and his plutocratic puppeteers despise: Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The current minimum is $7.25. It’s 11 years old. The federal minimum for tipped workers, $2.13, is 26 years old.

Past GOP-run Congresses have buried minimum wage hikes for so long that 29 states and dozens of cities – including Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and the Twin Cities raised their own minimums. Democratic-run St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., and Birmingham, Ala., did, too, but their states’ GOP-dominated governments revoked the hikes. Sea-Tac, a Seattle-area suburb, last year approved an immediate $15 minimum.

The Pro Act. By a party-line vote, the Democratic-run House Education and Labor Committee approved the comprehensive labor law rewrite, the Protect the Right to Organize (Pro) Act. Pelosi has yet to schedule a floor vote. The Communications Workers have made overt support for the Pro Act their litmus test for backing congressional candidates in 2020.

The Pro Act has a wide range of improvements over present labor law. They include, but are not limited to, But it includes high fines for law-breaking firms, provisions to outlaw “captive audience” meetings, immediate injunctions against serious law-breakers and immediate reinstatement of illegally fired workers.

There are also provisions to make it easier to unionize, force firms to bargain under threat of binding arbitration of first contracts, make both corporate headquarters and individual corporate franchises – think McDonald’s and your local McDonald’s eatery – jointly responsible for obeying, or breaking labor law.

About the only improvement the Pro Act lacks over present law is sending chronic individual labor law-breakers to jail, as Korea just did with two top Samsung executives. And Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden, a Pro Act backer, favors doing that, too.

Comprehensive election and ethics reform. There are big-ticket items in this pacage, HR1, that would help workers: Shining sunlight on the tsunami of corporate cash and dark – covered-up – money that has spread like a cancer in U.S. politics and government; Election law reform to make it easier, not harder, to vote; A ban on “voter ID” laws and other intimidation used against workers, women, the old, the young and people of color; Reinstating enforcement “teeth” to the Voting Rights Act. Even making Election Day a federal holiday.

Voting rights act renewal. Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., knew Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., called HR1 – and everything else the Democratic-run House passed – “socialism” and deep-sixed it, she split out the Voting Rights Act rewrite as HR4. The House passed that, too.

Getting OSHA to prevent violence against health care workers. National Nurses United led this drive. It’s succeeded in California; now they’re trying to take it nationwide. The nurses and their allies got the House’s Democratic majority, plus 21 Republicans, to vote for legislation ordering the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to write rules hospitals and nursing homes must follow to protect nurses and other workers against violent patients and family members. The lobbies for those industries, plus Trump of course, oppose it.

The Protect America’s Workers Act. What the Pro Act is to labor law reform, PAWA, which the House panel also passed, is to updating and toughening for beefing up job safety and health law, again with higher fines for law-breakers.

Resolving the problems of financially troubled multi-employer plans. As part of the year-end money bills to keep the government going through all of fiscal 2020, lawmakers took care of the looming big pension cuts and withdrawal of health benefits that faced almost 100,000 active and retired coal miners and survivors. But that still leaves the problems of big multi-employer pension plans, notably the Teamsters Central and Southern States plan, whose finances, assets and contributions crashed in the Wall Street-caused 2008 Great Recession.

Strongly pro-worker Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, leads lawmakers in trying to solve the problems. His legislation sets up long-term low-interest loans to plans that have detailed plans to put themselves on sound financial footings, without cutting benefits, as current law permits. McConnell is cool to Brown’s plan. Extremist Republicans scream it’s a “bailout” of unions. Naturally, they don’t mention workers.

But before lawmakers can tackle any, or all, of these measures – and more – the GOP-run Senate alone will be tied up with two big-ticket issues: Trying Trump on the House’s impeachment charges of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power, and passing legislation to implement “NAFTA 2.0,” the re-re-written U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the latest “free trade” pact between the three nations.

Unlike NAFTA, the revisions, strengthening and rewrite of labor enforcement provisions in the USMCA – rewrites forced on Trump by workers, unions and their House Democratic allies – were so strong and so extensive that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka endorsed the pact, as did several other union leaders. So did Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a long and strong pro-worker lawmaker and Pelosi’s lead bargainer with the Trump government’s trade rep. So does Brown. The House passed the implementing legislation in December, 385-41.

But the Machinists opposed the USMCA, saying it would still not stop U.S. firms from outsourcing jobs to Mexico. The Auto Workers were wary, as plants kept closing and moving.

All these measures don’t even count what may come down the pike, particularly Trump government proposals, taken from the Chamber of Commerce’s wish list, to write anti-worker measures into stone by turning them into federal regulations which are hard to oust afterwards.

Pro-worker lawmakers already introduced bills to overturn some Trump anti-worker rules.

When will Congress tackle these issues, and more? Who knows? Impeachment could gum up the works and threaten congressional plans to even consider, much less approve, any or all pro-worker bills. The “planes” will keep circling over “O’Hare,” the U.S. Capitol.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.