The House approved the bill 241-185, with 13 Republicans joining 228 Democrats in supporting the measure, which would permit a union to be formed if a majority of workers sign authorization cards.
Under current law, a company can accept a so-called card-check election or force a secret ballot vote supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.
In addition, the bill would allow a company or a union to refer a first contract dispute to mediation after 90 days and to binding arbitration after 30 days of mediation. It would impose fines up to $20,000 on companies that discriminate against workers during organizing campaigns and force them to pay treble back wages.
The House defeated GOP amendments to allow employees to put themselves on union “do not call” lists and to mandate that elections occur only through secret balloting.
Advocates for the bill argue that it would allow employees to freely form unions without coercion from employers.
“It’s ending intimidation of hardworking Americans … when they simply say, ‘I want a union,’ ” Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a press briefing after the vote.
Opponents assert that the measure would subject workers to pressure from unions, who they say have championed the bill as a means to boost their declining numbers.
Earlier in the week, the Bush administration formally announced that the president would veto the bill if it reached his desk.
“The administration opposes any effort to circumvent supervised elections and private balloting,” a policy statement says. “It is a fundamental tenet of democracy that individuals are able to vote their conscience, free from the threat of reprisal.”
Before getting to the president, the bill has to survive the Senate, where it needs 60 votes to avoid a filibuster. A similar bill garnered 45 Senate co-sponsors in the last Congress.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, made ominous overtures about the House bill. “I can assure you that it will meet a different fate when it gets to the Senate,” he said in a speech.
Miller says that the bill is building momentum that will help it in the Senate because proponents are tasting victory that was impossible during Republican control of Congress.
He and other Democrats cite the unionization measure, along with an increase in the minimum wage, as evidence of their support for the middle class, which has seen pensions disappear and health care costs escalate despite big corporate profits.
“We’re here to make the economy fairer,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said in the post-vote press conference.
Republicans, however, say Democrats are motivated by politics. They accuse them of promoting the bill as a payback to unions for their support during the 2006 election, when Democrats took control of the House and Senate. Labor contributed $56.7 million to Democratic candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“It’s almost beyond my imagination that this bill is on the floor of the House of Representatives taking away the secret ballot election,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, during the floor debate. “It’s about upsetting the balance between workers and management. This is an effort to help [unions] get more members.”
The business lobby is putting up a fierce fight against the bill. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce grass-roots campaign has resulted in 40,000 individual contacts with Capitol Hill offices and involves targeted radio ads in many congressional districts.
Some companies, however, have allowed their employees to form unions through the card-check process. Cingular says that doing so has helped it increase employee engagement and improve customer relations.
Miller says that easing unionization establishes a cooperative atmosphere in the workplace “rather than two armed camps.”
“This has exciting potential for forward-thinking, forward-leaning companies,” he says.