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New Senate Labor Committee Chair Vows to Pass EFCA

Sen. Tom Harkin said EFCA, which has sparked a fierce lobbying standoff between organized labor and business, is his priority following health care reform.

September 10, 2009
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Labor Relations, Workforce Planning, Latest News
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A compromise on a bill that would make it easier for workers to join unions was on the verge of Senate passage in July but was delayed because Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, was ailing at the time and couldn’t make the vote, according to the new leader of the Senate labor committee.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was named Wednesday, September 9, to replace Kennedy as the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Kennedy died of a brain tumor at age 77 on August 25.

“We got to an agreement that I thought would get us to 60 votes,” Harkin told an audience of union supporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday, September 10. But the vote did not occur because Kennedy was too ill to come to Washington.

Until Kennedy’s successor in the Senate is chosen, there are 59 Democrats in the Senate, one short of the number needed to overcome a filibuster. Republicans used that tactic to kill the Employee Free Choice Act in 2007.

As soon as a new Massachusetts senator is seated, Harkin will reassemble the senators working on the bill and “try to get this put back together.”

Harkin said EFCA, which has sparked a fierce lobbying standoff between organized labor and business, is his priority following health care reform.

“This has stuck in my craw for a long time, and I’m not going to give up on it,” Harkin said. “I take on this committee with optimism and determination to get a health care bill through and to make sure that we get EFCA through as soon as possible. This session of Congress we are going to get EFCA passed—maybe before Christmas.”

The congressional session runs until December 2010.

Harkin wouldn’t divulge details of the July compromise.

“I will not say because it was closely held and it was never leaked out and it still hasn’t,” Harkin told reporters after his speech. “As soon as I’ve got 60 votes, we’ll put it back on the hot burner.”

Stalled since it was introduced in March, EFCA would allow workers to form unions when a majority of them sign cards authorizing one. Under current law, companies can demand secret-ballot elections run by the National Labor Relations board.

Another controversial provision would impose binding arbitration if an agreement on a first contract is not reached within 120 days.

Proponents of the bill say that corporations intimidate workers and squelch organizing drives. Greater collective bargaining leverage will raise wages and increase benefits, according to EFCA supporters. Only 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union.

Opponents assert that the bill would effectively eliminate secret-ballot union elections, subject workers to coercion by union bosses and drive up labor costs for companies struggling to cope with the recession.

The anti-EFCA argument has persuaded several moderate Senate Democrats to resist the bill, which has led to negotiations over a compromise.

Harkin noted the trouble the bill is in during his remarks September 10 to about 300 people gathered by American Rights at Work. After listening to Harkin, they were to commence a day of lobbying for EFCA.

“A few people on our side have got wobbly knees, and you have to straighten their knees out,” Harkin said.

Over the summer, speculation emerged that the compromise EFCA bill would drop the so-called card-check provision in favor of shortening union election time frames to five to 21 days, down from the current average of 42 days. Another modification would involve softening the arbitration provision.

Last week, AFL-CIO leaders indicated that they might accept an EFCA without card check.

In a September 9 interview, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, predicted that Congress would address card check.

“There will be a vote on card check somewhere along the legislative process of this bill,” Stern said.

He was circumspect about whether he could support a version of EFCA without card check.

Stern also said that the arbitration provision is subject to change.

“People need to have a first contract in a reasonable period of time,” he said. “What are the mechanisms for doing that are debatable—last-best-final offer, issue-by-issue arbitration, letting the arbitrator decide.”

The business community has vowed to keep up its fight against EFCA.

“We are going to aggressively engage on this issue as Congress returns to urge opposition to this job-killing legislation in any form,” Keith Smith, director of employment and labor policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a recent interview.

Business will have to battle Harkin, who said his passion for unions was stoked by watching management break his father’s and brother’s unions.

“This is personal for me,” Harkin said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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