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Labor unions push for sweeping federal changes that impact Utah businesses and employees

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The Protecting the Right to Organize Act. or the PRO Act, is the biggest proposal from labor unions since the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. (Photo: KUTV)

Labor activists pushed to create Labor Day more than 130 years ago. Today, labor union leaders are pushing for new federal legislation.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act. or the PRO Act, is the biggest proposal from labor unions since the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.

"Now it's probably just as important, if not more important, than it was back in the 30s,” said Jeff Worthington, president of the Utah AFL-CIO.

The act impacts employers, people in the gig economy and workers. One of the biggest changes, if passed, is it would essentially nullify 27 Right to Work states, including Utah.

“It would just level the playing field,” Worthington said.

In Utah, non-union workers aren't required to pay union fees, though Worthington said some reap union benefits. For example, the union is required to defend non-union members if they were to get into disciplinary trouble at work.

He said that's taking advantage.

"They still get the wages and the benefits that we collectively bargain for, negotiate for," Worthington said.

Under the act, all workers in union shops would be required to pay union fees.

The act would also bring changes for employers, some leading to more penalties or litigation.

"This is a big deal,” said Karina Sargsian, a labor and employment attorney at Holland & Hart.

She said the proposal would also prevent employers from getting in the way of unionizing employees. Businesses would no longer be able to have mandatory meetings to organize against the unions. Employers would face penalties for doing so.

"It will restrict employers from being able to try and sway employees from joining the union," Sargsian said.

She also said the act would essentially ban mandatory arbitration agreements, allowing employees to bring their claims in court.

If that happens, she said, employers can expect to see an increase in class action lawsuits.

The act would also bring huge changes for people in the gig economy, like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash drivers.

The PRO Act would significantly narrow who is considered an independent contractor. Employers would have to choose whether to bring independent contractors on as full employees or let them go.

"The gig economy employers are going to be grappling quite a bit, trying to figure out what to do," Sargsian said.

She said there are already many lawsuits between independent contractors and their employees, and this change would magnify that.

Worthington said Utah has one of the lowest union memberships. He said especially on Labor Day, Utahns should remember what unions have accomplished.

"That is what built out infrastructure, that is what gave us our five-day work week, which gave us weekends, that gave us our holidays that we are celebrating today,” he said.

Worthington said vacation pay and sick leave are what unions fought for, and the PRO Act is their way to fight for more.

The act has already passed the House but is stuck in the Senate. It currently has 47 co-sponsors, but they need four more. Worthington said Utah is one of the holdout states. He has reached out to Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney multiple times but said he has not gotten an indication of how they feel about the act.

In March, Rep. Burgess Ownes released a statement in opposition to the act. He said it is “a sweeping piece of legislation that will harm workers, discourage business and aid union bosses.” Owens said the act forces one-size-fits-all contracts and prioritizes union bosses over employees.

Representatives of the National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spoken out against the bill.

According to a Gallup poll released last week, 68% of Americans approve of labor unions. That is a near 60-year high. The next highest approval rating was 71% in 1965.

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