Battle looms over right to unionize

By Peter Szekely
Monday, February 5, 2007; 6:58 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With Democrats in control of Congress, labor will try to make unionizing as simple as signing a card, a move which business is already challenging as an assault on the secret-ballot process.

The battle will begin on Tuesday when lawmakers introduce the Employee Free Choice Act, which would not only streamline unionizing, but also assure newly organized workers a contract and sanction lawbreakers. It would enable workers to unionize simply by having a majority sign up, rather than by holding a vote as they now must do.

Passage is considered likely in the House of Representatives but is more uncertain in the Senate.

"I think most people get it that there's a power imbalance between workers and management," said Greg Denier, spokesman for the Change to Win labor federation. "But I don't think most people have made the connection yet that it's because of the the labor laws."

Last month, the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, released a poll by Hart Research in which more than two-thirds of adults surveyed supported the bill's key provisions.

With union membership slipping, the AFL-CIO ran a full-page newspaper ad on Sunday in support of the bill. It plans a major publicity campaign with Change to Win and other groups.

"We don't run ads a lot," said AFL-CIO spokeswoman Lane Windham. "It's indicative of how important this is."

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are preparing a publicity offensive of their own, centered largely on the notion that casting a secret ballot for or against a union is a cherished right for workers.

"I think people can understand the hypocrisy of the unions pretending to protect workers' rights, but taking away the secret ballot to decide if they want a union," said Randel Johnson, the chamber's vice president for labor policy.

The new bill, which union officials said is likely to be nearly identical to a version of a bill that died in the last Congress, would require employers to recognize unions once a majority of workers have signed pro-union cards or petitions.

The law now lets employers avoid unions, unless a majority of workers vote for one in a government-supervised election.


The bill's backers cite studies showing at least one in four employers illegally firing workers with little, if any penalty, in the months leading to elections.

Opponents counter with charges of worker intimidation in union-organizing campaigns, which they say the bill would make worse. They plan a measure to bar employers from voluntarily recognizing unions, which they are now allowed to do.

The United States is one of the few industrialized nations where workers can be required to vote to get a union. Only in some Canadian provinces and in Britain if less than a majority of workers have signed up for a union can there be elections, said Ken Zinn of the AFL-CIO's Center for Strategic Research.

With nearly half of all House members having co-sponsored the bill last year, backers expect passage now that Democrats are in control. But they expect a tougher fight in the Senate where only 44 of 100 senators backed the bill last year.

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