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Senate Likely to Squelch Unionization Legislation

June 20, 2007
Related Topics: Labor Relations, Latest News
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A bill that would make it easier for workers to form a union likely will fail in the Senate in the next few days.

Sometime between Thursday, June 21, and the July 4 recess, the Senate is expected to conduct a cloture vote on the measure, the Employee Free Choice Act. It takes 60 votes to invoke cloture—or end debate—on a bill and move to a final vote.

It is likely that nearly all of the Senate’s 48 Republicans will vote against cloture, ensuring that it will not reach the 60-vote bar. The bill, which has 46 Democratic co-sponsors, would allow a union to form if a majority of workers sign cards authorizing a bargaining unit. Under current law, a company can insist on a secret-ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.

The bill would enable any party in a first-contract negotiation that is not concluded within 90 days to take it to federal mediation. If no agreement is reached within another 30 days, it would go to arbitration.

The legislation also would impose fines of up to $20,000 per violation if a company violates a worker’s rights during an organizing campaign.

The House approved the bill 241-185 on March 1. President Bush has vowed to veto it.

Unions have made the measure their top priority, while the business community has been lobbying against it fiercely.

Advocates for what has come to be known as the card-check bill argue that companies intimidate workers during unionization drives. Opponents say that a card-check election would foster intimidation by unions.

Rhetorically, Democrats place the measure on a roster of proposals that they say will strengthen the middle class because workers are more likely to have health care and pension coverage if they’re represented by a union.

Republicans label the bill "undemocratic" and assert that it would violate workers’ rights to a secret-ballot election—like the one that puts senators in office.

At a sweltering rally near the Capitol on Tuesday, June 19, Democratic office holders addressed hundreds of union members and organizers, in part to thank them for delivering Democratic majorities in the House and Senate last fall.

But they stopped short of saying that approval of the card-check bill is possible. They stoked the crowd by declaring that senators would be forced to take a stand on the issue.

Achieving a win may require more electoral gains in the Senate—and the White House—for Democrats.

"Unions are essential to this country’s success and absolutely critical to the middle class," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, told the union rally. "If [President Bush] vetoes it, when I’m president, I’ll sign it and we’ll finally get it done."

Republicans in the Senate are just as passionate in their opposition. "The bill is un-American," Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, said at a Capitol press conference on Wednesday, June 20. He argues that it would strip workers of their right to a secret-ballot election.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asserted that the bill also would dramatically change collective bargaining rules, weakening the contract-negotiating process.

"It’s an overreach like I’ve never seen before," he said, noting that unions already win 60 percent of the time in NLRB elections. "This is a very, very important battle. We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure employees are protected."

Democrats invoked similar language in promoting the bill. "We need to do it for the American worker," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, told the June 19 labor rally. "It’s time they were moved up on the agenda."

But Reid has drawn criticism from Republicans for putting the bill on the Senate calendar without having it approved by the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee. The panel held a March 28 hearing but did not mark up the bill.

"They didn’t have the courage to take it through the committee, which means it’s purely political," says Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming and the panel’s highest-ranking GOP member.

Wrangling is also occurring among interest groups. The AFL-CIO says that 53 percent of U.S. workers, or 60 million people, would join a union if they could.

Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, an anti-union advocacy group, disputes that number, questioning labor’s polling methodology. He says independent surveys indicate that upwards of 75 percent of nonunion workers don’t want to form bargaining units.

He also asserts that this week’s activity is a preamble for labor. "This is simply part of a staged setup by the unions to create a more meaningful vote after the 2008 elections," he says. "Business is not taking this campaign seriously. The unions are playing a long-term game."

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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