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What a Republican Majority in Congress Could Mean for Labor

Republicans have already introduced national right-to-work legislation and a range of bills meant to stamp out union momentum.

In less than a week, voters will decide which party controls Congress for the last half of President Joe Biden’s term. There’s an expectation among political observers that Republicans will flip the House of Representatives, but the fate of the Senate is much more uncertain. Most public polling shows that key Senate races, in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, remain very tight, with the Trump-endorsed candidates closing in on their opponents. Though the Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights tilted the political landscape in favor of Democrats over the summer, economic anxiety — and concerns over inflation in particular — has shifted the advantage back to Republicans. But what would a Republican majority actually mean for labor, and working people in general? 

After decades of union decline, the U.S. is seeing a wave of organizing across a number of sectors and industries. Workers have been spearheading union drives, protests, and walkouts at companies that were previously unthinkable, including giants like Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple. Public support of unions is also at the highest point since 1965, with 71 percent of Americans now holding favorable views. But as the Federal Reserve continues to raise interest rates, as part of the central bank’s plan to slow the entire economy and increase unemployment, worker bargaining power could soon be diminished, dampening union momentum.

Congressional Republicans are vowing to roll back labor protections by passing far-reaching legislation that would make it more difficult for workers to organize and attacking the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency tasked with safeguarding workers’ right to organize and handling corporations’ labor rights violations. If elected to a 10th term, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the top Republican on the House Committee on Education and Labor, has been seeking a waiver to lead the committee. The GOP has already introduced a range of anti-labor bills, including national “right-to-work” legislation. Over 110 House Republicans and 21 Senate Republicans have co-sponsored the National Right to Work Act, which was introduced last year by Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in the Senate. 

Right-to-work laws undermine labor unions and worker bargaining power by preventing everyone who benefits from a union contract from paying dues or any fee associated with the costs of administering it. This makes worker representation and organizing financially difficult and historically bleeds union density. There are 27 states that have already enacted a right-to-work law. In Tennessee, which has had its right-to-work law since 1947, voters will decide whether to enshrine it into the state’s constitution. For policy ideas on labor, the Republican Study Committee’s “Blueprint to Save America” from June points to the “Reclaiming the American Dream: Proposals to Empower the Workers of Today and Tomorrow” report. The document proposes to end voluntary union recognition, recategorizing household workers (like nannies, cleaners, yard workers, and health aides) as contractors instead of employees, and passing Rep. Tom Rice’s New GIG Act to substantially expand the types of jobs where workers could be classified as independent contractors — stripping them of various labor rights.

Republicans also have their eyes set on the NLRB. The Protecting American Jobs Act, introduced by Rep. Scott Austin in March 2021, would defang the National Labor Relations Board by removing the agency’s ability to prosecute charges of unfair labor practices. Utah Sen. Mike Lee introduced a companion bill in the Senate. Republicans would also be able to undermine the agency by starving it of resources and bogging it down with congressional hearings and investigations. “I’ve joked with my colleagues that we will probably be holding two oversight hearings a day, because we’re going to be so busy with oversight,” Foxx told Politico in August. “We’re going to hold the NLRB and [Department of Labor] accountable.”

The NLRB has been in crisis for years as a result of chronic underfunding, facing massive staffing shortages in the agency’s field offices, which has left it unable to deal with the recent surge in union activity and flood of unfair labor practice charges being filed against the most profitable corporations in the world. The agency’s funding has been stuck at $274 million since 2014, even as costs have risen — largely due to years of Republican opposition. “We believe deeply in the mission of our agency and fear that we cannot fulfill its mission of enforcing federal labor law if we do not receive a budget increase,” the NLRB union tweeted this week. “Congress MUST deliver us this increase in the coming months.” But Republicans staunchly oppose any funding increases for the NLRB, with Foxx recently calling it “an inherently stupid idea.” 

Since Biden took office, Republicans have sent letters urging the NLRB to restrict mail-in voting for union elections, demanding investigations into allegations that the NLRB has been “colluding with labor unions to tilt election results” in favor of unionization in Starbucks, and targeting other pro-labor shifts in labor law — including NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo’s memo opposing what are known as “captive audience” meetings. If the GOP takes control of the House, the Senate, or both, Republican lawmakers will scrutinize and try to undermine any of the labor protections and pro-worker policy developments that have been implemented under the Biden administration. 

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