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Local Tech Community In Uproar Over Labor Rights Bill

Eric Ryan, co-founder of Method, discusses education reform with Marc Ecko, founder of Marc Ecko Enterprises, at the White House during a Summit Series event.
Eric Ryan, co-founder of Method, discusses education reform with Marc Ecko, founder of Marc Ecko Enterprises, at the White House during a Summit Series event. (Courtesy Of Summit Series)

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By Kim Hart
Monday, March 16, 2009

A labor rights bill backed by President Obama has become one of the most hotly contested issues in local technology circles.

The Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize, was reintroduced last week on Capitol Hill. The legislation has been introduced in the past three Congresses, but never won the 60 votes needed to pass in the Senate.

Now that the bill seems to have a better chance at passage, the Northern Virginia technology community is in an uproar about it.

"There is no meeting that I go to that this subject does not come up," said George Newstrom, chief executive of Lee Technologies and former secretary of technology under Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner. "In board rooms, this is the number one thing that's being talked about."

The bill, commonly referred to as the "card-check" bill, would allow employees to form unions by getting a majority of workers to sign cards -- without having to hold a secret ballot. Currently, employers can decide whether workers must hold an election for union representation or organize via a "card check."

And, according to the bill, if employers and workers do not agree on a contract in 120 days, a government-appointed arbitrator will intervene.

Some workers argue that the bill would level the playing field for labor unions, whose memberships have reached all-time lows in the past decade. The bill, proponents say, would prevent employers from intimidating workers before elections and stalling contract negotiations.

Employers, on the other hand, say the bill would leave workers vulnerable to intimidation from union organizers, and not requiring a secret ballot would allow peer pressure to interfere with the election process.

Local executives say the bill's implications are especially dangerous to technology companies, which stay competitive by being able to shift strategies quickly to meet ever-changing consumer demands and industry trends.

The Northern Virginia Technology Council, which rarely takes a stance on federal policy debates because it tends to focus on state issues, is actively lobbying against the bill. The legislation would undermine efforts to attract businesses to Virginia, which is a right-to-work state, NVTC's executive director, Bobbie Kilberg, said.

"If card check passes, it will embolden unions to try to overturn right-to-work laws," she said.

S. Bradford Antle, chief executive of McLean-based SI International, which provides information-technology services to the government, said the bill would "place the government in the middle of negotiations between employees and management."


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