Bill Easing Organization Of Unions Passes House

By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007

In the most contentious clash between business and labor groups of the new Congress, the House yesterday passed legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize unions -- a measure that President Bush has promised to veto and that Senate Republican leaders have vowed to filibuster.

Continuing in the populist tone of its first 100 hours, the House's Democratic majority pushed through legislation to remove the right of employers to demand secret-ballot elections and to require employers to recognize unions once a majority of workers sign cards saying they want to organize.

Democratic and labor leaders argued that the existing system has become so tilted in favor of employers that it no longer protects workers' rights. Republicans accused Democrats of trying to eliminate a cornerstone of democracy -- the secret ballot -- as a payback to "union bosses" for the labor movement's support in the 2006 election.

"The Employee Free Choice Act puts democracy back in the workplace so the decision to join a union can be made by the workers the union would represent," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told colleagues. "This is the standard right that we routinely demand for workers around the world. We should accept no less a standard here in America."

The measure would represent one of the most significant revisions of federal labor law in 60 years. It is the top legislative priority of the labor movement, which represents a record low 12 percent of the workforce, compared with 35 percent in the 1950s. Major business lobbies have mobilized against it to a level not seen since the fight over Bush's 2001 tax cuts, according to a Chamber of Commerce official. Yesterday's 241 to 184 vote was largely along party lines, with 13 Republicans voting for the measure and two Democrats opposing it.

Republicans took issue with every aspect of the bill, including its name, the Employee Free Choice Act, which they called "mischievous," "misleading" and "Orwellian." Republican Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) suggested it be called, "The American Worker Compulsion Act," arguing that union organizers could bully workers into signing cards.

The White House took the same tack in promising a presidential veto, should the bill pass the Senate. "It is a fundamental tenet of democracy that individuals are able to vote their conscience, privately, free from the threat of reprisal," its statement read.

The vote fell short of the two-thirds majority required to override a veto.

The lobbying campaign leading up to the vote featured AFL-CIO ads highlighting workers who were fired during union-organizing campaigns, and who waited years to get jobs back or to receive back pay.

In yesterday's debate, Democrats cited National Labor Relations Board statistics showing that more than 31,000 workers were awarded back pay in 2005 for unfair labor practices. The numbers have risen steadily in the past three decades, from 7,393 in 1975 to 18,434 in 1985 and 26,197 in 1995, according to NLRB annual reports. The House measure would also impose stiff penalties on employers for unfair labor practices and would require federal arbitration to reach labor contracts if newly certified unions and employers do not reach agreement within 90 days.

The business community's campaign was led by a coalition of 300 business organizations in all 50 states, calling itself the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace. The group aired radio ads calling the legislation anti-worker and antidemocratic, and said its efforts generated 27,000 contacts of House members from within the targeted districts.

Democrats and labor leaders hailed the vote yesterday as an answer to the declining fortunes of middle-class workers and the growing income divide. "Because of today's vote, the future looks a little brighter to all Americans who have watched corporations celebrate record profits but have themselves been shut out of the party, left with stagnant wages and facing soaring costs," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said.

Business leaders and Republicans argued otherwise. "Organized labor is not winning [union-organizing] elections because they're not able to articulate a fundamental value proposition to the vast majority of American workers," said Michael J. Lotito, a lawyer who represents employers in labor relations cases. "They're trying to change the process to increase their market share."

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