By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Business and labor groups are intensifying their battle over a measure that would make it easier to organize unions, offering a preview of what is certain to be one of the earliest and hardest-fought legislative battles in the new Congress.
The Employee Free Choice Act would require employers to recognize unions once a majority of their workers sign cards of support. It also would require employers and unions to submit to binding arbitration if they are unable to reach a contract agreement within 120 days.
The changes would be the most significant in federal labor law in six decades, both sides say. Labor leaders and other supporters -- including President-elect Barack Obama -- say the measure would help restore bargaining power to workers whose wages have fallen behind inflation in recent years.
The proposal was the subject of a flurry of television advertising in several battleground Senate races this fall, but it never emerged as a front-line issue. Now, however, it is shaping up to be one of the most divisive battles facing the new Congress, and ultimately the Obama administration. On the campaign trail, Obama expressed strong support for the measure, which he co-sponsored as a senator, and he calls it an essential element in his vision for restoring middle-class prosperity.
The proposed legislation is opposed by a growing number of business groups, which frame it as an early test of Obama's economic pragmatism and see it as an attempt by unions to gain power they have lost as their ranks have dwindled in recent decades.
"If it passes, I think it would be a wholesale change in the political power structure in this country," said Rick Berman, founder of the Center for Union Facts, which opposes the measure. "People would be pressed into joining unions without having an opportunity to say no. Unions would collect billions of dollars in dues that they would use to hijack the political process for as far as the eye can see."
Opponents have attacked the proposal's intent to eliminate secret ballots in union elections, an idea they say is undemocratic. They also point to the weak economy, which this year has shed more than 1.9 million jobs, and say the plan is especially threatening to small businesses.
"We are trying to shine a little broader spotlight on what we think are the dangerous aspects of this legislation, particularly in this economy," said Katie Packer, executive director of the Workforce Fairness Institute, one of a growing number of business coalitions working to defeat the measure.
In recent television ads, opponents have linked heavy unionization to job cuts and other problems afflicting the airline, steel and automobile industries.
"I really worry that this issue is a public policy disaster and political nightmare in waiting," said political strategist Mark McKinnon.
McKinnon, who worked for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the Republican primary season but refused to work against Obama in the general election, argued that the opposition to the issue could jeopardize the rest of Obama's legislative agenda. "I think it has the potential to be like gays in the military was for Clinton if they try to roll this out quickly," he said.
Democratic congressional leaders have said they plan to move on the legislation quickly once Congress convenes in January. The measure is at the top of the list of concerns for organized labor, whose leaders say that current organizing rules have depleted the power of workers to bargain for good wages. In the past quarter-century, the share of workers in unions has declined from 20 percent to 12 percent, and many are public employees. Just 7.5 percent of private-sector employees are unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Under current organizing rules, employers can demand that workers hold secret-ballot elections on whether to organize. Labor organizers say the rules allow companies to pressure workers through campaigns that often include closed-door meetings.
They also argue that the arbitration rule is necessary to prod employers to bargain in good faith. Currently, just over one-third of new unions fail to reach agreements on contracts with their employers, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University researcher.
At the same time, labor organizers point out that unionized workers earn 30 percent more than nonunion members in similar jobs and are much more likely to have health insurance and pension benefits.
"We see the Employee Free Choice Act as part of an economic recovery package," said Greg Denier, spokesman for the labor coalition Change to Win. "Workers' wages are what drive consumption. If their wages are stagnant, you are undermining the foundation of economic growth."
The card-check proposal passed the House in early 2007 but was defeated in the Senate by a GOP filibuster. The bill faced a certain veto from President Bush. Now, however, the battle is focused on the Senate, where the Democrats will have a comfortable, but not filibuster-proof, majority. Most analysts think that if the bill makes it to Obama's desk, he would sign it into law.