Labor’s top priority is a measure that would make it easier for workers to join a union. The Employee Free Choice Act would require companies to recognize a union when a majority of workers sign cards authorizing one.
The bill was approved by the House in 2007 but was blocked by Senate Republicans. Next year, there will be at least five more Democrats in the Senate.
Their total of 56 as of Wednesday, November 5, puts them within four votes of a majority big enough to stop a filibuster. Four Senate races are still undecided.
“Our prospects have improved dramatically since the election,” said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, at a press briefing in Washington on Wednesday.
Obama’s ascension from the Senate to the White House is one of the primary reasons for the union’s renewed hope for the bill. As an Illinois senator, Obama was a co-sponsor of the legislation.
He will confront a long list of urgent problems when he is inaugurated on January 20, and it’s not clear how high the unionization bill will rise on his “to do” list. Obama did embrace it during his campaign, however.
The measure represents a major change in labor law. Under current rules, a company can force a secret-ballot vote supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. Supporters say the secret ballot is still an option under the bill.
In addition, the measure would allow a company or a union to send 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.
Critics argue that the bill undermines workplace democracy and is designed to bolster union membership, which stands at about 12 percent of the U.S. workforce.
John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, urged Obama not to rush the bill forward because it would undermine his outreach to the business community.
“There’s no question it’s going to be a tough battle in the Senate,” Engler said Wednesday at a press conference in Washington. “This is not the time and this is not the issue on which to build a relationship.”
Engler also pointed out that in 2007, unions won 50 to 60 percent of organizing votes.
“This is about winning 100 percent by not having an election,” he said.
Supporters contend that company intimidation denies millions of workers the opportunity to form a union. They say that collective bargaining is the avenue to higher salaries and better benefits.
“In an economy that gives corporations far too much power, a union card remains the single best ticket into the middle class,” said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.
Promoting the card-check bill was a primary motivation for deep union involvement in the election. Unions contacted 13 million voters in 24 states to support Obama and other Democrats. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates spent $250 million on member mobilization, advertising and contributions to candidates.
Union members voted for Obama over Republican presidential nominee John McCain by 67 percent to 30 percent, according to Guy Molyneux of Peter D. Hart Research Associates in Washington.
Sweeney argued that union members “were the firewall that stopped John McCain” in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.
Despite strong Democratic gains in the election, the party may fall anywhere from two to four seats short of a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
Even if Republicans have enough votes to block the bill again, Trumka is confident about the measure’s prospects.
“There are an infinite number of strategies to get that passed rather than a straight-up vote—and they will get our full attention,” he said.
But Jay Timmons, executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said that some of the new Democrats coming to Capitol Hill may not back the unionization bill. He cited Sen.-elect Mark Warner, D-Virginia, as a possibility because he did not highlight the issue in his campaign.
“You’ll see several new members coming at issues from a different standpoint,” Timmons said.
—Mark Schoeff Jr.