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Specter Adds Name to List of Those Touting an EFCA Agreement

September 16, 2009
Related Topics: Labor Relations, Workforce Planning, Latest News
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Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, became the second senator in less than a week to indicate that a compromise on a controversial unionization bill had been reached and that the Senate could act on the measure this year.

In comments to the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, September 15, Specter said that talks between him, several senators and labor officials have resulted in a revised version of the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure that would make it easier for workers to organize.

The original bill, introduced in March, would allow employees to form a union when a majority of them sign cards authorizing one. Under current law, companies can demand a secret-ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.

The business community has fiercely opposed the majority sign-up portion of the measure as well as a provision that would institute binding arbitration if a first contract is not reached within 120 days.

Specter’s office didn’t respond to a request for details about the compromise. Speculation has been swirling over the summer that the so-called card-check provision would be replaced with one that would shorten the time frame for union elections to five to 21 days instead of the current average of about 42 days.

“We have pounded out an employees choice bill which will meet labor’s objectives—that is, prompt certification and binding arbitration—and give you the kind of support that you need and are entitled to,” Specter said, according to a transcript provided by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is lobbying against EFCA.

“And I believe that before the year is up [there will be] passage of an Employee Free Choice Act which will be totally satisfactory to labor,” Specter said.Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, last week told union supporters in Washington that he had enough support to proceed to a vote in July.

At the time, the Democratic caucus reached 60 members, after Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, was seated. That’s the number required to overcome a Republican filibuster like the one that killed EFCA in 2007.But Harkin squelched a July vote because Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, was ailing and couldn’t make the trip to Washington. Kennedy died of brain cancer August 25.

Business advocates doubt Harkin’s math. EFCA negotiations were prompted by the need to reach a compromise that would attract enough moderate Democrats to reach 60. That group has been shunning the bill, swayed in part by arguments that it would effectively eliminate secret-ballot elections and raise labor costs for companies struggling to cope with the recession.

“What matters is not whether the AFL-CIO has cut a new backroom deal on the bill, it is whether it can be sold to Senate moderates who are worried about saving jobs, especially their own,” Steven Law, chief legal officer and general counsel at the Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.

But President Barack Obama used an economic argument to endorse EFCA when he spoke to the AFL-CIO convention on September 15.

He said the measure would lead to more collective bargaining, giving workers leverage to raise their pay and benefits.

“We’ll grow our middle class by building a stronger labor movement,” Obama said. “And that’s why I stand behind the Employee Free Choice Act, because if a majority of workers want a union, they should get a union.”

For the moment, there is no question that the bill is not going anywhere. Democrats can’t break a filibuster because they have 59 senators until a successor to Kennedy is chosen. There are 40 Republicans.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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