Senate Republicans yesterday blocked a bill that would have made it easier for workers to unionize, striking a major blow to organized labor's effort to eliminate the long-standing practice of secret-ballot elections.
Democratic supporters were unable to secure the 60 votes needed to end debate on the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure that would allow unions to form after getting a majority of employees to sign a card or petition.
The final vote was 51-48. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was the lone Republican to vote yes. No Democrats voted against the bill. The House had approved the measure in March 241-185.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona said eliminating the secret ballot would have opened workers to coercion from unions and from employers.
"No one would think of depriving Americans of the right to a secret ballot in congressional elections," Mr. Kyl said. "Workers deserve the same protection when choosing whether or not to organize a union."
The measure has pitted labor activists and union foes in a fierce lobbying and public-relations campaign the past few months.
Organized labor said the bill was crucial for helping defend itself from anti-union employers and lawmakers.
Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and a co-sponsor of the bill, accused Republicans of misleading the public, saying workers, not employers, need greater protection from coercion during unionizing votes.
"This bill does not establish a new election process; it merely requires employers to honor employees' choices on whether or not they want to unionize," Mr. Harkin said.
Supporters of the bill say the card-signing — or "card-check" — method is more fair than holding a secret-ballot election because it's a simpler, more-direct approach for workers to decide if they want to unionize.
But opponents called the measure undemocratic.
"The principle of a secret ballot is deeply rooted in the American tradition," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. "While it is unfortunate that Democrats would seek to reverse this right, Senate Republicans today stood firm in defending it."
Opponents also said the measure was nothing more than political payback by Democrats to the unions, which significantly supported the party during last year's congressional elections.
In the 2006 elections, organized labor gave $57.5 million to Democratic candidates and party committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But business interests, which opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, donated $81 million to the Republican Party for national elections in 2006, the center said.
"It is sad and shameful that Republican senators chose to block the road to the middle class for millions of workers by throwing up procedural barricades from their minority position in Congress," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said.
Mr. Sweeney added that organized labor will campaign against those lawmakers who voted against the bill.
"Theirs is a stunt that working men and women will remember when they go to the ballot boxes in 2008," he said.
Overall union membership was 12 percent of the work force nationally last year — down from 12.5 percent in 2005 and 20 percent in 1983.
Union activists say they will continue pushing the matter with Congress, possibly as early as next year.
"This fight is far from over," said Jeremy Funk, a spokesman for Americans United for Change, a union advocacy group. "There's no denying the ground has shifted for the labor movement and that the American public want a fix to the broken system for forming unions and bargaining with employers for fair treatment."
Union leaders said that since a majority of members of both houses of Congress favor a card-check system, it is only a matter of time before the proposal becomes law.
"The Senate vote shows the ground has shifted," Mr. Sweeney said. "Those who continue to support our broken system will find themselves on the wrong side of history."