Congress likely to reconsider card-check unionization
Though President Obama has signed four executive orders favoring organized labor, the crown jewel for unions — legislation making it easier for workers to organize — is yet to come.
The Employee Free Choice Act, commonly called the "card-check bill," that died in the Senate in 2007, is expected to come before Congress again in spring or summer. It is often considered the most significant labor bill since the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 established the ground rules for union organizing.
Under that act, in effect today, at least 30 percent of an employee group must sign cards requesting union representation. Once that threshold is met, the National Labor Relations Board certifies the cards and sets up a private vote. Approval by a majority of eligible employees puts union representation into place.
The new proposal would streamline the process, making unionization easier. Unions would be certified simply by getting a majority of workers to sign cards on the spot, avoiding the whole election process in which employers usually oppose organizing efforts.
Labor leaders strongly favor the new proposal, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes it. Thus both sides "are heavily invested in the outcome of this bill," said William B. Gould, a professor at Stanford Law School and former chair of the National Labor Relations Board. He said card-check could infuse the labor movement with momentum it has not seen in decades.
Unions support the bill simply because it makes the unionization process easier, said James Sherk, a labor expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington.
"Oftentimes, workers that sign the card don't really support the unionization of the company, but sign the card" to get the union organizer "off their backs," Sherk said. "But, facts have shown that once in privacy of the voting booth, they vote no."
Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, said the bill empowers employees.
"The intent of law is pretty clear. It lets the employee decide, not the union or the employer," said Shea, who disagrees with critics who say card-check eliminates the right for employees to have a secret ballot.
"Plain and simple, the right to vote in private is never taken away," he said.
Shea cautions if the law is not passed now, with Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress, "we will never do it."
The addition of 428,000 union members nationwide last year represented the largest growth in membership in two decades. Most of the new membership came from government employees, and the increase raised union membership to 12.4 percent of the work force, up from 12.1 percent in 2007.
The Chamber of Commerce -- one of card-check's most vocal opponents -- plans to spend $10 million in a campaign to block the move. "If needed, we will spend more," said chamber spokesman Glenn Spencer.
Unions are spending heavily on advertising and mailings. The AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union spent millions of dollars to support Obama's presidential campaign.
Obama supports card-check. "If a majority of workers want a union, they should get a union. It's that simple," he said during an April campaign swing through Pennsylvania.
Obama's stand helped diminish underlying racial concerns of some white union members, said Bill George, Pennsylvania president of the AFL-CIO. "It helped me make the argument that he was for us and for the bill."
"This is the ultimate battle between labor and business," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College. "There is probably no issue that has come up in the past 30 years that is more controversial than card-check."
The original card-check bill was introduced by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee. The House in 2007 voted 241 to 185 to approve it, but it died in the Senate after it drawing just 51 votes, nine short of the 60 needed to overcome a procedural hurdle.
Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter was the only Republican to vote for the Senate measure. Sweeping Democratic gains at the polls in November -- Democrats hold 58 Senate seats -- puts card-check back in play.
It is unclear whether Specter will support the bill again. His office declined to comment.
Specter, who stands for re-election next year, is under fire from fellow Republicans for agreeing to vote for the $787 billion stimulus package and would face more political rage in the Republican primary if he votes for card-check. Yet, should he win the primary, voting for card check could help significantly in the general election in a state with nearly 1.25 million more Democrats than Republicans.
Miller, who sponsored the House version of the bill, said it remains an important priority for him.
"We must give the middle class the tools so they can hold on and improve their economic livelihood," Miller said.Additional Information:
Four executive orders signed by President Obama reversed orders of President Bush. Obama's orders include requirements that:
• Federal service contractors offer jobs to current workers when contracts change.
• Companies receiving government contracts must post fuller information on workers' rights. Under Bush administration rules, contractors were only required to post information about union dues.
• Prevent federal contractors from being reimbursed for expenses meant to influence workers deciding whether to form a union and engage in collective bargaining.
• Encourage the use of labor agreements for federally funded construction projects valued at $25 million or more.