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Specter tells AFL-CIO he backs organizing bill

| Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009, 12:00 p.m.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter courted leaders of the largest labor union in the country, promising to deliver a compromise Employee Free Choice Act that is "satisfactory" to labor groups and predicting it would pass by year's end.

"While it is nice to have the President's support on Air Force One, and it's nice to have (Vice President Joe) Biden with me in the Pittsburgh Labor Day Parade, and it's good to have Gov. (Ed) Rendell with me ... I realize that elections are won or lost with the support of the AFL-CIO," Specter said.

The Philadelphia Democrat said the compromise legislation he crafted with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney keeps intact the provisions most favored by labor. Among those wishes is forcing companies to sign contracts with new unions within about 120 days, or have a contract imposed on them through federal arbitration and based on the "last, best offer," Specter said.

Specter, who switched from the Republican to Democratic Party in April, was the lone Republican to oppose a filibuster of the Employee Free Choice Act in 2007 but said he'd join one earlier this year, before changing parties. The compromise bill changes the so-called card check provision, which would have allowed employees to form unions by signing cards, rather than casting a secret ballot.

"Arbitration is an issue (unions) have been after for a long time. That turns out to be the most important part of the bill," Specter said during a news conference after his speech. He added that fewer than half of new unions get a contract within their first year.

Despite the changes, Specter predicted the bill will pass on a party-line vote, and won't be able to get past a Republican filibuster unless Massachusetts voters elect a Democrat to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

"I do not believe there will be any Republican votes," Specter said.

He is courting union support for his primary challenge against U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak. The winner likely would face former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey in the fall.

Incoming AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised Specter's decades of support of union causes.

"Many times, he was the only pro-labor Republican that we could count on — and count on him we did," Trumka said.

Specter voiced support for another top union priority, a health care overhaul with a public insurance option.

"Although there's not a lot of support of single-payer, I believe it should be on the table," Specter said, drawing cheers. "At a minimum, we shouldn't settle for anything less than a robust public option."

He predicted Congress would pass a health care bill within 60 days.

President Obama is scheduled to address the convention, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, this afternoon. From here, he and Specter will fly to Philadelphia for a fundraiser for Specter.

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