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Labor Leaders Vow to Bring Employee Free Choice Act Bill with Card Check Provision to a Vote

The bill, the top priority of organized labor, has been stalled on Capitol Hill since the beginning of the year. The primary cause has been the lack of support from moderate Senate Democrats.

July 17, 2009
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One of the most vocal labor proponents of a bill that would make unionization easier vowed Friday, July 17, to bring a controversial provision to a vote regardless of whether it is included in the final legislation.

The New York Times reported Friday that Democratic senators trying to hammer out a compromise on the bill have decided to drop a measure that would force companies to recognize a bargaining unit when a majority of employees sign cards authorizing one.

"The Employee Free Choice Act is going through the usual legislative process, and we expect a vote on a majority signup provision in the final bill or by amendment in both Houses of Congress," Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, said in a statement responding to the story.

The bill, the top priority of organized labor, has been stalled on Capitol Hill since the beginning of the year. The primary cause has been the lack of support from moderate Senate Democrats.

The business lobby has mounted a fierce campaign against the measure, warning that it could undermine workplace democracy and raise labor costs in the middle of a recession. Under current law, companies can demand a secret-ballot union election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.

Unions say that the bill will level the playing field for union elections, which they say are now unfairly dominated by corporations. With wider union representation, employees will gain higher salaries and better benefits, they argue. About 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union.

As negotiations continue, the prospects for card check seem to be dimming in favor of shortening union elections to about 10 days after petitions have been filed. The current average campaign lasts about six weeks. But union activists caution that a compromise has not been reached and the situation is in flux.

The bill was killed in 2007 when Senate Republicans blocked it through a legislative maneuver. After wins in last fall’s elections—and the defection of former GOP Sen. Arlen Specter to their party—Democrats now have 60 members in the Senate, enough to stop a filibuster.

But it’s been difficult for proponents to cobble together that level of Senate support. Specter opposes EFCA but is in the middle of trying to broker a compromise bill.

He would not confirm that card check is no longer on the table.

"The negotiations are best served by no public comment at this time," he said through a spokeswoman Tuesday.

The business community is not breathing a sigh of relief about the apparent demise of card check. They resist the 10-day union election time frame and other campaign reforms that may take its place. In addition, they adamantly oppose a provision that would mandate arbitration if a first-contract negotiation isn’t completed within 120 days.

"This rumored alternative is just a discounted version of the original bill and we intend to work hard to block it," Steven Law, chief legal officer and general counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. "And if the unions add expanded union access to workplaces and restrictions on employer speech in union elections that would be throwing gasoline on the flames."

Peter Conrad, a partner at Proskauer Rose in New York, said that a 10-day vote is not realistic for the National Labor Relations Board.

"I don’t think they’re equipped to move elections that rapidly," said Conrad, who began his career as an NLRB lawyer in New York City.

Conrad didn’t rule out a compromise on election duration, calling 30 days a good time frame. Studies show that unions win 60 percent of elections held within 60 days of petition filing. But unions say numerous drives are squelched before reaching a vote.

Haggling over election timetables won’t diminish the EFCA fight.

"The card-check change in isolation would not be enough to satisfy the business community," Conrad said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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