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House Panel OKs Genetic Discrimination, Card Check Bills

The genetics measure sailed through a House committee in 30 minutes, while the bill to make workplace organizing easier took more than seven hours and has drawn a presidential veto threat.

February 15, 2007
Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Labor Relations, Latest News
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A House committee on Wednesday, February 14, approved a bill that would ban companies from making employment decisions based on genetic tests and a separate measure that would facilitate unionization.

But the fates of the two bills likely will now separate. The Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act sailed through the House Education and Labor Committee in about 30 minutes. A Senate counterpart committee approved a companion bill on January 31.

In contrast, the bill that would make workplace organizing easier, the Employee Free Choice Act, took more than seven hours and has drawn a presidential veto threat.

The bill would allow the formation of a union if a majority of workers sign cards authorizing one. Under current law, the so-called card-check process can only be used if an employer agrees to it. A company can insist on a secret ballot.

“It should be the employees’ choice, not employers’, and that’s really what the heart of this bill is all about,” said Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the House labor committee.

Tensions emerged as Democrats defeated, mostly on party-line votes, a dozen GOP amendments—including one that would have mandated that union votes occur only by secret ballot.

Cingular Wireless, Costco, Harley-Davidson and Kaiser Permanente have allowed card-check union formation. Cingular says it has increased employee engagement.

During the hearing, Democrats asserted that unionized workers have higher wages and benefits. If more Americans could join unions, they said, it would bolster the middle class. They said secret ballot voting fosters coercion by employers.

Republicans countered that the card-check system would subject workers to intimidation from unions because they would be forced to make their preference known to their co-workers. In addition, they said union politics is driving the Democrats.

“Supporters of this bill see the card check as a silver bullet through which organized labor will reverse their recently sagging fortunes, because relying on the time-honored private votes of workers hasn’t given them the results they’ve sought to maintain power,” says Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, ranking Republican on the labor committee.

About 12 percent of the workforce is unionized, a proportion that has been steadily declining.

The bill, which already has 234 co-sponsors, is likely to be approved by the House. Its fate in the Senate, where it has to garner 60 votes in order to avoid a filibuster, is much more uncertain.

If the measure makes it through Congress, it will likely die at the White House. Vice President Dick Cheney said in a speech Wednesday in Washington that the bill violates workers’ rights to a secret ballot.

“If it is sent to the president, he will veto the bill,” Cheney says.

Business interests also are mounting a fierce campaign to defeat the legislation.

The genetics bill, on the other hand, is cruising along with bipartisan comity. In the House hearing, Republicans praised Democrats for working with them to ensure the bill cannot be used as a federal mandate for insurers and employers to cover genetic-related conditions. Other changes targeted the definition of family member and record-keeping procedures.

Employer groups have said that the lack of genetic discrimination suits under current state laws demonstrates there is no need for a federal bill.

But there is broad support on Capitol Hill to back research.

“There is a clear need for us to pass a law to protect genetic information from discriminatory uses,” Miller said. “We all suffer if fears of lost jobs or health insurance stifle these scientific advances.”

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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