Republicans are aggressively courting blue-collar votes by adding a plank to their policy platform that demands workers retain the right to unionize through secret-ballot elections. One of the party's iconic law-and-order figures warned on Wednesday that Democratic efforts to change the labor voting system would leave workers vulnerable to corruption and intimidation.
"I think that it's just a principle of American democracy that you should be able to choose to be a member of a union or not be a member of a union, and you should be able to make that choice without anything rigged either way," former New York mayor and one-time Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani told The Washington Times in an interview.
"I would think that that position of Senator [Barack] Obama's really comes about because of special interest pressure, not because of any logical analysis of what is right in the Democrat system," he said.
Mr. Giuliani, who gained fame in the 1980s as a federal prosecutor who aggressively pursued organized crime, said he feared the Democrat-backed proposal to change the long-standing union voting system would "create a real problem for prosecutors" trying to fight union corruption.
"This idea that Senator Obama is somehow the 'new politics' is really one of the bigger myths that exists. He is very much the old politics; he does the things unions want," Mr. Giuliani said during a stop in Denver designed to raise the Republican Party profile during the Democratic nominating convention.
Labor's biggest legislative prize in decades could be the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure that would allow unions to form after a majority of employees sign cards or petitions, bypassing the traditional secret-ballot method of organizing.
Mr. Obama's support of the change puts him directly at odds with the Republican plank.
Unions say the card-signing - or "card check" - method is fairer than the secret ballot because it's a simpler, more direct approach for workers to decide whether they want to unionize. The unions argue that they need the legislation to defend against anti-union companies and lawmakers, which they blame in part for decades of declining membership.
Republicans "don't care if they destroy the middle class, and the middle class in this country was created by the right to form unions and collective bargain - there's no other way," said Stewart Acuff, assistant to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.
"It should not be up to the boss to decide how a union is organized; it should be up to the unions," Mr. Acuff said.
Opponents of the bill, including big businesses like Wal-Mart, say Democrats are making a desperate attempt to pander to organized labor - one of the party's most loyal backers - and say the measure would deprive workers of their privacy and their right to vote and would expose them to intimidation by union organizers. Many worry that the change would allow for unions to organize workers more quickly.
Groups on both sides of the debate are expected to spend millions of dollars to campaign on the issue this election season. Opponents of the proposal are airing radio ads in Denver during the Democratic convention that feature an animated ballot box pleading to keep the secret-vote system.
In Michigan, where unions in the automotive and related industries still wield influence, state Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis told The Times that "nationwide, the right to a secret ballot is important to everybody, union members and non-union members. The union bosses would like to have the card-check system, which basically allows someone to walk in and intimidate a voter by giving them a card, watching how they vote, having them sign that card and give it back to the union officials."
The issue is not just Republican versus Democrat, he said, noting that even some liberal Democrats oppose the idea of stripping workers of the right to a secret vote and not be intimidated. "George McGovern came out for preserving the secret ballot in union elections," Mr. Anuzis said.
The fight over the bill underscores the historic alliances of labor with Democrats and business with Republicans.
The final version of the Republican Party platform is scheduled to be approved Monday morning by the 112-member platform committee and go for final approval before the full convention Monday afternoon in St. Paul, Minn.
Titled "Stopping the Assault on the Private Ballot," the secret-ballot plank says that the "recent attempt by congressional Democrats to deny workers a private ballot in union referenda is an assault, not only against a fundamental principle of labor law, but even more against the dignity and honor of the American work force."
The Democratic Party platform adopted in Denver this week takes the opposite position, pledging to strengthen the ability of workers to organize unions and fight to pass the card-check proposal.
The legislation failed in Congress last year, but unions are pushing hard to get the proposal reintroduced next year.
"It's ironic Republicans are pushing this because it's bipartisan legislation, so they're writing a plank to their platform that members of their own party reject," the AFL-CIO's Mr. Acuff said.
A card-check proposal passed the House last year by a 241-185 vote, with the support of 13 Republicans. The bill failed in the Senate by a vote of 51-48, with Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania as the lone Republican supporter.
Business and corporate interests adamantly oppose the proposal. The AFL-CIO says big business will spend $300 million through 2009 in advertising and lobbying efforts against the card checks.
But union leaders say that because the card-check system is considerably quicker than conducting secret-ballot elections, which typically take weeks, it reduces the potential for employers to harass and intimidate workers against joining a union.
Labor unions represent one of the strongest constituencies in the Democratic Party. Although membership has dropped to an estimated 7 percent to 12 percent of the work force, unions provide a reliable volunteer force of doorbell ringers and Election Day workers.
Since President Richard M. Nixon's first White House win in 1968, however, Republicans have been able to appeal to more of the blue-collar voters who hold dear their respect for "God and country."