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Uphill Battle Over Unionization Bill Moves to House, Senate

March 10, 2009
Related Topics: Future Workplace, Ethics, Labor Relations, Latest News
Even with substantially increased Democratic majorities in the House and Senate following last fall’s election, a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions faces a tough battle to become law.

The Employee Free Choice Act was introduced in the House and Senate on Tuesday, March 10, with fewer legislators signing on to the bill than the legislation garnered in 2007. 

The top priority of organized labor, the bill had to be reintroduced because it was stymied in the previous Congress by a procedural maneuver by Senate Republicans.

The bill would force companies to recognize a union when a majority of employees sign authorization cards. Under current law, employers can require a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

Supporters were hopeful that the increase in Senate Democrats to 58, possibly 59 pending a decision in a disputed Minnesota election, would virtually ensure that the bill could get the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster. There are 41 Senate Republicans.

But the current Senate bill has 40 co-sponsors—six fewer than in 2007. The House version has 223 co-sponsors, 10 fewer than 2007 and significantly less than the total number of Democrats in the House, 254.

The measure is the subject of a lobbying frenzy this week by business and labor groups, including the Society for Human Resource Management and the AFL-CIO.

Opponents of the bill say that the declining support is evidence that Republicans are solidifying their opposition and that many Democrats are getting cold feet.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and author of the Senate bill, dismisses that notion. He said members of his party believe that workers, not management, should choose the format for union elections.

“I see no erosion in the Senate among Democrats for that basic principle,” Harkin said at a Capitol Hill press conference. “I think the votes are there. I’ve seen bills introduced around here with three co-sponsors and get 100 votes.”

But two Democrats who voted for the bill in 2007 indicate that their backing isn’t assured.

“Right now, my No. 1 priority is strengthening our economy and putting 90,000 jobless Arkansans back to work,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas, in a statement.

“I’ll consider legislation to change union organizing rules sometime after it’s introduced in the Senate and before it’s brought to a vote.”

Her Democratic partner in the Arkansas delegation, Sen. Mark Pryor, also is circumspect.

“This legislation is not perfect, and while I have been supportive in the past, I will consider amendments to make it better if and when it is considered by the Senate,” he said in a statement.

Lincoln and Pryor will get a chance to review the bill carefully. Unlike a measure earlier this year that reset the statute of limitations for pay discrimination cases, the union bill will go through the normal legislative process of hearings, committee votes and then floor action.

“There are all kinds of ideas floating around,” Harkin said. “As we go through the amending process, we’ll see what happens.”

One possible change mentioned by lobbyists over the last few weeks is dropping the card-check provision but instituting “quickie” union elections that occur within a few days of a petition being filed as opposed to the 45 or so days it currently takes.

As the fierce legislative battle begins, business and labor groups are digging in.

“This bill is not improvable,” said Marc Freedman, director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The idea of a compromise is not something that we’re exploring at this point.”

In addition to governing the union election process, the measure would refer a first contract to binding arbitration if an agreement isn’t reached within 120 days of bargaining. The resulting contract would be binding for two years. The bill also would impose fines of up to $20,000 each time a company violates a worker’s rights during an organizing campaign.

Advocates say the bill levels the playing field for labor by curtailing what they call employer bullying tactics during union campaigns. They also argue that by helping more workers join unions, it will lead to higher wages and benefits.

“The Employee Free Choice Act is critical to building an economy that works for everyone in this country again,” said Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Opponents contend it would effectively eliminate secret-ballot elections. Proponents say that the bill allows workers to choose between a secret-ballot or card-check process.

The prospect of the demise of the secret ballot concerns SHRM. The organization ran an ad in Capitol Hill publications on March 10 that read: “Every voter in America has the right to a secret ballot. Why shouldn’t every employee?”

The annual SHRM Employment Law & Legislative Conference is under way in Washington, drawing a record 650 attendees. It will conclude on Wednesday, March 11, with visits by 250 members to Capitol Hill offices. The union bill will be at the top of their agenda, according to conference participants.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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