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Union Bill Compromise Likely Coming After Memorial Day

May 13, 2009
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Senate talks aimed at reaching a compromise on a bill that would make it easier for employees to join a union likely will continue until June, according to the lead negotiator.

But when an agreement is in place, the legislation could bypass the committee process and head directly to the Senate floor, said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Harkin said Wednesday, May 13, that his goal was to cobble together a new version of the Employee Free Choice Act before Congress leaves town at the end of next week for its Memorial Day recess.

“I was hoping for that,” Harkin told reporters after a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Department of Labor budget. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to make it.”

Harkin is conducting talks with Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, and other colleagues following Specter’s decision last month to switch parties. Specter’s move puts the number of Senate Democrats at 57.

With the two independents who caucus with the party, Democrats are within one seat of the magic number of 60. They could reach that level, which would be enough to squelch filibusters, if a Minnesota court decides that Al Franken won that state’s disputed Senate race. A filibuster killed EFCA in 2007.

Even though Specter has changed parties, he hasn’t changed his position on the original EFCA bill, which he opposes because it would allow unions to form once a majority of workers sign cards authorizing one. Currently, employers can demand a secret-ballot election.

Specter also is against an EFCA provision that would send a first contact to mandatory arbitration after 120 days of failed labor-management talks. Specter’s qualms are shared by some moderate Democrats who have shunned EFCA.

But Specter has indicated that he is open to amending labor law, which could come in the form of an EFCA compromise.

Reaching an agreement is taking a lot of work. Four senators and Senate leadership are “trying to hammer this out,” Harkin said. “We’re trying to work through the fine points.”

When a final bill emerges, Harkin favors putting it before the full Senate instead of sending it through the Senate Health, Education and Pensions Committee.

“If we have a general agreement, we’ll probably go straight to the floor,” Harkin said. “But don’t hold me to that.”

Such a move would be sure to draw the ire of Republicans and the business lobby. They accused Democrats of ignoring them earlier this year when pay discrimination legislation bypassed the committee process.

Harkin said that it wouldn’t make sense to subject the bill to amendments in the committee when it will be amended on the Senate floor. “Why do it twice?” he said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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