Senator Manchin throws support behind U.S. labor reform bill

WASHINGTON, April 19 (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Joe Manchin said on Monday he supports a sweeping labor reform bill, giving the legislation some momentum after it passed in the House last month.

The West Virginia Democrat said the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, would level the playing field for unions and he was looking forward to working with a bipartisan group of legislators to pass it. He made the announcement at a virtual National Press Club event with Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union.

The bill, introduced in February by Democratic Senator Patty Murray and supported by President Joe Biden, would bolster collective bargaining rights, allow unions to collect dues from non-members covered by their contracts, and establish penalties for corporations that violate workers' rights, among other measures.

The PRO Act passed in the House 225 to 206 but has an uphill battle in the Senate. Even with Manchin's support the bill does not yet have all 50 Democrats in the 100-member Senate, the level at which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said it would get a vote. Democratic Senators Mark Warner, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly still have not supported the bill.

And a Senate rule that requires most legislation to win 60 votes for passage instead of only a simple majority, could stand in its way.

Union opponents decried Manchin's move. Kristen Swearingen, chair of the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, said the bill would invade employee privacy and "kill West Virginia jobs, while taking the hard-earned income away from small businesses and employees."

But UMWA's Roberts said passage of the legislation would go a long way to help recovery across Appalachia, which has been hit hard by the transformation of the energy businesses from coal to renewable energy. U.S. coal production has sunk to the lowest levels since the 1970s and jobs in the industry have plummeted more than 40% since 2008.

UMWA launched on Monday a plan called "Preserving Coal Country" that for the first time supports jobs in renewable energy in coal country. It calls for an expansion of tax incentives for building supply chains for solar and wind power, with hiring preferences for out-of-work miners and their families.

It also calls for enhanced government funding for carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. The technology, not yet commercial, could extend the life of existing coal plants by siphoning off carbon emissions for permanent storage underground.

Roberts added that if the plan wasn't adopted, the United States risks losing leadership in developing technologies that could preserve jobs and provide new opportunities.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Aurora Ellis

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Timothy reports on energy and environment policy and is based in Washington, D.C. His coverage ranges from the latest in nuclear power, to environment regulations, to U.S. sanctions and geopolitics. He has been a member of three teams in the past two years that have won Reuters best journalism of the year awards. As a cyclist he is happiest outside. Contact: +1 202-380-8348