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Union-Related Bills Tackle Intimidation on Both Sides

May 25, 2005
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Lori Gay, a Utah nurse, alleges that the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center has used intimidation tactics to prevent her colleagues from forming a union that would improve working conditions and patient care. Jeff Ward, an employee at Thomas Built Buses in North Carolina, claims that a union tried to scare him into supporting an organizing effort, even though workers at his plant make more money than their counterparts at competing facilities in the region.

In Washington, bills that would address each situation have been introduced—but neither is likely to gain congressional approval.

In mid-April, Rep. George Miller, D-California, unveiled the Employee Free Choice Act, which would require employers to recognize unions through a card-check process, in which a majority of workers sign cards authorizing union representation. It also would provide mediation and arbitration for first-contract disputes and triple lost pay for workers fired during an organizing campaign.

Two months earlier, Georgia Republican Charles Norwood, chairman of the House workforce protections subcommittee, introduced a measure that would mandate a secret ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board to establish a union.

For now, both bills have mostly partisan appeal. The vast majority of support for Norwood’s Secret Ballot Protection Act will come from Republicans, though Democratic support may reach double digits. Of the 138 House members and 36 senators who co-sponsored the Miller measure in April, seven are Republicans, mostly from districts and states with large labor constituencies. But the House Republican leadership probably won’t allow a vote on Miller’s employee choice bill.

Backers say they are looking to the future. “We have a president who is not going to sign this bill, so we’re building more bipartisan support, more geographical support, so that when we elect a president who will sign it, we’re ready to pass it and put it on his desk,” says Andy Levin, director of the AFL-CIO Voice at Work Campaign.

Until then, Gay, whose union vote remains unresolved after three years, asserts that federal rules stifle organization. “With this excessive delay, the National Labor Relations Board is in effect denying us our right to choose union membership,” she said at an April press conference on Capitol Hill. “The freedom to choose a union is a basic human right.”

Critics of the card-check system say it gives unions carte blanche to bully workers into organizing. After Ward protested a unionization vote, maps to his home were posted in his factory with a note exhorting his colleagues to “stop by and tell him what you think of a union.” Armed guards provided by the National Right to Work Foundation were stationed in his front yard. “Things have died down,” Ward says. “But I don’t put anything past some of the thuggery that goes on in union situations.”

Norwood’s bill fortifies a fundamental right by undermining intimidation, according to spokesman John Stone. “You can’t have a free election unless you have a secret ballot,” he says. The Miller bill “is not going anywhere if it restricts people’s right to vote.”

Norwood’s measure may not pass Congress either. It does, however, provide cover for Republicans who oppose card-check elections but don’t want to be attacked as anti-union. That doesn’t guarantee that House leadership will bring it to a vote, and Senate rules make it easier for Democrats to stop the bill there. House Republican aides say they hope to hold hearings on card-check elections later this year.

Washington battles aside, union membership has declined from a peak of 35.7 percent of the private sector in 1953 to 7.9 percent today. About 12.5 percent of the total workforce was unionized in 2004.

Peter Morici, an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, says companies fend off unions by offering employees high pay and respect. U.S.-based factories of foreign companies, which are proliferating in the South and Midwest, fit this profile and are one of the biggest threats to unions.

“It’s hard to sell workers in an empowered environment on class-warfare unionism,” Morici says. “Unions are becoming progressively less relevant to private sector workers.”


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