- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Labor groups are hoping that the new Democratic majority in Congress will push through a measure that would make it easier for workers to join unions.

The bill, scheduled to be introduced today by Rep. George Miller, California Democrat, is prompting labor activists and union foes to square off in an intense and high-profile lobbying campaign.

The Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers to unionize by simply signing a card or petition stating their interest in joining the union, as opposed to the decades-old practice of secret-ballot elections.

If a majority of employees sign, the employer would be required by law to recognize and bargain with the workers’ union.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, will introduce the Senate version of the act later this year, his office said yesterday.

Labor activists say the bill is crucial for helping defend them from anti-union companies and lawmakers, which they blame in part for decades of decline.

Overall union membership was 12 percent nationally last year — down from 12.5 percent in 2005.

“America’s middle class is shrinking fast, and unions are a key to bridging our nation’s growing economic divide,” AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said.

Labor analysts say unions will survive if the bill is defeated, because unions have strong support in the public sector — about 40 percent in 2006.

Mr. Miller sponsored an almost-identical version of the free-choice act last year, which didn’t come to a vote in the Republican-dominated House. Many labor analysts say the bill will pass the House, but have a difficult time in the Senate, where Democrats have only a slight numerical edge.

“The Senate has always been the graveyard of labor law,” said Bill Gould, a Stanford University law professor.

Many expect President Bush to veto the bill, if it survives the Senate.

Unions say the card-signing — or “card check” — method is more fair than the secret ballot because it’s a simpler, more-direct approach for workers to decide if they want to unionize.

And because card-check organizing is considerably quicker than conducting secret-ballot elections, which typically take weeks, proponents say it reduces the potential for employers to harass and intimidate workers against joining a union.

“People should be able to choose whether to form a union free from employer intimidation and coercion,” Mr. Sweeney said. “Our current labor law is broken.”

The bill also would allow for arbitration to settle contract disputes for newly organized union chapters and impose stronger penalties on employers who violate labor laws.

But opponents say the bill is a desperate attempt by organized labor to stay relevant.

“Basically, what [labor leaders] are trying to do is accomplish through legislation what they have not been able to accomplish in the marketplace, and that is to make themselves attractive institutions to ordinary workers,” said Peter Morici, a University of Maryland business professor and a former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.

The bill would curtail — not enhance — workers’ rights by denying them the opportunity of an election to determine whether or not to unionize.

“This bill is a ruse,” Mr. Morici said.

The Center for Union Facts, an anti-union group vigorously fighting the bill, says card-check organizing in an unreliable method of gauging an employee’s true interest in joining a union. Union organizers often mislead employees — either intentionally or unintentionally — and pressure them to sign.

The group, which has been running full-page anti-card-check advertisements in The Washington Times, The Washington Post and other major U.S. newspapers, says card-check organizing is “undemocratic” and highly susceptible to fraud by union organizers.

“Voting by secret ballot protects coercion from all sides,” said Sarah Longwell, a spokeswoman for the group. “When you vote in secret, no one knows how you voted. There’s no way to intimidate you.”

Although secret-ballot elections are desirable for deciding political campaigns, they’re ineffective in the workplace, Mr. Gould said.

“The secret-ballot-box initiative has been perverted, and it has been manipulated by employers,” said Mr. Gould, who served as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board in the Clinton administration from 1994 to 1998.

Still, the bill isn’t perfect, Mr. Gould added. He said he would like to see a provision requiring employees to pay or pledge to pay union dues or initiation fees before signing a card or petition to unionize.

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