Call it “Take 4” on Capitol Hill for a high-stakes bill that gives workers the right to unionize without a secret ballot – and dramatically expands government’s role in settling labor disputes.
The Employee Free Choice Act, or “card check,” has been introduced in the past three Congresses, but it always failed to win the 60 votes needed to pass controversial legislation in the Senate.
With expanded Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate – and a president pledging to sign the legislation – this year may be different.
“Today is one of those defining moments [in history], as we introduce legislation that puts power back into the hands of people who are truly the backbone of our economy,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa in a press briefing on Tuesday.
The proposed law gives workers a choice of forming a union through majority sign-up (“card check”) or an election by secret ballot. The current election process, governed by the National Labor Relations Board, strongly favors employers, unions say.
The bill also beefs up penalties for employers that discriminate against workers for their union-organizing activity, including treble back pay for workers found to have been illegally fired.
Sponsors say the legislation would improve wages, benefits, and working conditions by helping workers form unions. Critics, including a mobilized business community, say it’s a job killer. Both sides have been gearing up ads and fundraising appeals.
For labor unions, a key constituency of the Democratic Party, the Employee Free Choice Act is the No. 1 legislative priority.
Activists predict the legislation will correct past disadvantages for labor and expand recruitment.
“In these dire economic times, I can’t think of a better way to restore stability to middle-class families than to strengthen unions, said Jim Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, in a statement.
On the other hand, opposing the bill is a top priority for Republicans and much of the US business community.
It’s also a game-changing issue for Republicans, who often find themselves targeted by labor activists in campaign seasons. “A lot of union dues are used to run campaigns against Republicans,” says Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“What this would do is allow a huge pot of money to be accumulated to change the composition of Congress and pave the way for a big union agenda, which I think is the wrong direction when we’re worried about creating and retaining jobs,” he adds.
One of the most controversial features of the bill requires government arbitration if a contract dispute goes past 90 days.
Employers say it gives government an outsized hand in the management of business.
“That means that a government arbiter, who knows nothing about my business structure, is determining under what rules and conditions I’m going to operate,” says Bruce Josten, top lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce, which strongly opposes the bill.
“Not only does it set terms of employment, work rules, and wages, but an employer is bound by it for two years,” he adds.
A similar bill passed the House on March 1, 2007, by a vote of 241 to 185. On June 26, 2007, it fell nine votes short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster in the Senate.
In both houses, some lawmakers who have sponsored the bill in years past are holding off on their endorsements. Critics say that’s because with enhanced Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, the bill has a real chance of passing this year – and sponsors will take heat for its consequences.
“When business groups contact me in Arkansas, I listen to them just as I do to unions. My sense is we can find common ground on this, but we’re not just there yet,” he adds.
Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, a GOP moderate who has helped broker many of the bipartisan deals in the Senate, says that she is opposing this bill because it does not guarantee a secret ballot to ensure that workers will be protected from intimidation – and because it gives government too heavy a hand in contract negotiations. The binding arbitration provisions in the bill “would be the most significant change in labor law in decades, and I think it’s ill advised,” she says.