Clash Over Labor-Rights Bill Appears Likely

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

President Obama has hinted that although he supports the Employee Free Choice Act, he would be open to revised legislation that commands broader support, and is not exactly burning to push the labor-rights bill anytime soon.

But as the legislation, which would make it easier for unions to organize, was re-introduced yesterday, all signs were pointing to the kind of incendiary clash the president hoped to avoid.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), two leading sponsors, announced the bill's arrival as hundreds of union members and business owners swarmed Capitol Hill to start making their case for and against the measure.

The business owners, drawn from the states of key senators, got their marching orders at U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters, where leaders of the organization and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) praised them as the "first Marines hitting the beach" to defeat a "job killer" bill.

"Go up and tell them what will happen [if the bill passes], that no one is going to add a single job in the United States," Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue said. "Will I put a job here where it'll get unionized in an illegal way? No, I'll put it somewhere else."

The bill would allow employees to form unions by getting a majority of workers to sign cards, without having to hold a secret ballot; at present, it is up to employers to decide whether workers must hold an election or organize via "card check." And the bill would mandate that if employers and workers cannot agree on a contract in 120 days, a government arbitrator will intervene.

Workers say the bill would level the playing field after decades of labor decline. They assert that employers intimidate workers before elections and go years without agreeing to a contract. Employers say the bill would expose workers to union intimidation and allow the government to interfere in how owners run their businesses.

The bill has majority support in the House and the Senate, but it needs 60 Senate votes to survive a filibuster. The bill's backers are counting on the only Republican who sided with them during the last Congress, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), and centrist Democrats such as Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), and Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

An AFL-CIO lobbyist said last week that he was sure of 60 votes, but Lincoln and Landrieu, among others, have been outwardly ambivalent, hinting at the need for revisions to the bill. And compared with its last go-round, the measure has six fewer sponsors in the Senate and seven fewer in the House, even though there are more Democrats on the Hill now. The bill will not be taken up right away, as Democrats hope that Al Franken will be able to claim a contested Senate seat from Minnesota.

Chamber leaders told their troops to demand a filibuster vote and not settle for senators saying they would improve the bill. "There is no compromise," said Chamber general counsel Steven J. Law.

Labor leaders were similarly defiant. Andy Stern, president of the Services Employees International Union, said the push for a filibuster echoed attempts to quash workers' voice on the job. Employers "don't want democracy," he said. "They try to frustrate the ability to vote. They threaten and intimidate, and when that doesn't work, they try to frustrate the process and kill it."

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