US business group vows fight over union organizing

By Kevin Drawbaugh
Thursday, January 4, 2007; 5:58 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The largest U.S. business lobbying group on Thursday vowed to oppose Democrats who want to make it easier for workers to join unions -- an issue shaping up as one of the new Congress' first big fights.

As Democrats took control on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also warned that union pension funds could abuse any legislation that might emerge to give shareholders more clout in corporate boardrooms and on setting executive pay.

Briefing reporters one day after news that Home Depot Inc. Chairman Robert Nardelli's abrupt resignation came with a $210 million severance package, chamber president Tom Donohue said he expects a vigorous debate in the new Congress over executive pay and shareholder rights.

But he warned of a "serious problem" if lawmakers move to give shareholders more boardroom power and union pension funds take advantage of it to advance nonbusiness political goals.

On the question of making it easier for workers to organize, Donohue said: "We will go all out to oppose union efforts ... They will have a major fight on their hands."

Stewart Acuff, organizing director for the AFL-CIO labor group, called it an "incredible irony" that so soon after the Nardelli news, Donohue should vow to renew the chamber's "fight to keep workers from forming unions to improve their lives."

Donohue threw down the challenge to Democrats as they gathered to formally assume power, opening what is likely to be the least business-friendly Congress in a decade.

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, the incoming chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, supports measures both to make union organizing easier and boost shareholder rights.

Along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. George Miller, Frank backs the Employee Free Choice Act, known as the "card-check" bill. Introduced last year by Miller, a California Democrat, it would require employers to recognize a union after a majority of workers sign cards authorizing union representation.

Miller is the new chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. The Senate's companion card-check bill is backed by Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy.

The chamber -- whose members could face more union organizing pressure if the bill becomes law -- opposes it, saying the bill would deprive workers of a secret ballot election on union representation and invite harassment.

Pelosi last month committed to taking action in early 2007 on the bill, a central objective of the labor movement.

Frank is calling for a "grand bargain" between businesses and workers to break what he sees as legislative gridlock on economic growth initiatives. He is urging the business community to give ground on worker and environmental issues key to the Democrats' agenda.

He said he is planning committee hearings on wage inequality and "what we can do about it."

The massive severance package for Nardelli, who oversaw an 8-percent decline in Home Depot's stock price during his tenure, prompted Frank to criticize soaring executive pay and reiterate that he will introduce a shareholder rights bill.

Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission have attempted before to set new rules making boardrooms -- where executive pay is set -- more accessible to shareholders.

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