Tampa Bay lawmakers and workers call on Republican senators to expand labor protections

They were outside Marco Rubio and Rick Scott's Tampa offices last Friday.

click to enlarge Event organizers on Friday closed the rally by passing out materials on how Florida residents can contact Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, to ask that they stand with Florida workers and co-sponsor the bill. - WCFLC/Twitter
Event organizers on Friday closed the rally by passing out materials on how Florida residents can contact Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, to ask that they stand with Florida workers and co-sponsor the bill.

Tampa Bay lawmakers joined workers with the West Central Florida Labor Council and advocates outside the Tampa offices of Senators Mark Rubio and Rick Scott for a rally last Friday, to call upon the two Republican Senators to support the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a proposed labor law that would expand labor protections, if passed, and make it easier for workers in Florida and across the country join unions.

“The PRO Act is the most significant worker-focused legislation since the Great Depression and is designed to create a balance between the rights and needs of working people and those of their employers,” wrote the West Central Florida Labor Council of the American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) in a press statement. “This legislation empowers workers, enhances civil rights, and will help us build a stronger, more just economy for all.”

This sweeping labor reform law, which is backed by President Joe Biden and sponsored by Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate, passed the U.S. House in March. However, it’s currently stalled in the U.S. Senate, due to a lack of support from Republicans.

Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, like the rest of their Republican colleagues in the Senate, have yet to co-sponsor the PRO Act, which organized labor and Democratic lawmakers in the Tampa Bay area say would empower workers to organize for higher wages, safe working conditions, and respect on the job.

“The rich have gotten richer, while at the same time we have weakened the protections and rights of working people in this country,” said U.S. House Representative Kathy Castor (D-14), a cosponsor of the PRO Act in the House. “When you empower workers and you give them the right to organize, their wages go up, their families are more secure,” Castor said. “Everyone benefits.”

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, who’s been described as a “warrior” for labor issues in Tallahassee, spoke on how the PRO Act could be particularly beneficial for marginalized workers, including LGBTQ workers and workers of color.

“The PRO Act is more than just labor law reform. It’s civil rights legislation,” Rouson said on Friday. “A union contract is the single best tool we have to close racial and gender wage gaps, and to ensure dignity and due process for workers, regardless of where we're born, who we are, what industries we work in.”

State Representative Susan Valdes of Tampa echoed Rouson’s sentiment. “Organized labor has always provided a path toward equity in the workplace for women and people of color,” she said, adding that many of the low-wage essential and frontline workers—including workers in the healthcare, child care, and hospitality sectors, for example—are women and workers of color.

“The American dream was not built in a boardroom,” Valdes said, reflecting on the long tradition of everyday people in the U.S. standing up and organizing to demand better pay, a safe workplace, and the right to organize. “It was built on the picket line.”

Florida Rep. Dianne Hart, who is herself a former union member, spoke to the benefits of worker membership for all. “When membership is greater, our wages are better,” said Hart. “We are better together, and we’re much stronger as a people when we join our unions.”

Although not present at the Friday rally, Florida Reps. Andrew Learned (D-59) and Fentrice Driskell (D-63) have also signed onto a letter in support of the PRO Act, according to the West Central Florida Labor Council.

Friday’s rally came just one day after the announced launch of the national Worker Power Coalition, a group of 40 progressive organizations nationwide that are advocating in support of the PRO Act, including some of the country’s largest labor unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Communications Workers of America (CWA), as well as organizations like the Working Families Party, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the Sierra Club, and the youth-led Sunrise Movement.

Across the United States, an estimated 65% of Americans approve of unions. Yet union density in the U.S. rests at a dismal 11%—down nearly half of where it was in 1983—influenced by anti-worker policy, aggressive anti-union campaigns launched by employers, and other shortcomings of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that essentially suppress organizing activity—particularly in right-to-work states like Florida, where union workers make up only 6.4% of the total workforce.

“We all know that stronger unions mean higher wages, safer working conditions and dignity for all workers. We need to stop letting corporate America dictate our working conditions and start working together as partners to truly rebuild our economy back in a way that works for everyone,” said West Central Florida Labor Council President and IBEW member, Shawn McDonnell. 

However, without the support of at least 10 Republicans in the Senate, or filibuster reform, the PRO Act essentially has zero chance of passing. Hence why labor unions across the country, in addition to advocates and various political organizations, are rising up to organize for this major pro-worker legislation.

“The PRO Act protects the rights of employees who heed the call and do the work,” said Rob Kriete, president of the Hillsborough County Teachers Association, during Friday’s rally. “These employees deserve the right to organize and to collectively bargain livable wages.”

Event organizers on Friday closed the rally by passing out materials on how Florida residents can contact Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, to ask that they stand with Florida workers and co-sponsor the bill.

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McKenna Schueler

McKenna Schueler is a freelance journalist based in Tampa, Florida. She regularly writes about labor, politics, policing, and behavioral health. You can find her on Twitter at @SheCarriesOn and send news tips to [email protected].

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