Legislation that would make it more difficult for workers to hold a private ballot vote in unionization drives, which critics say would lead to harassment and intimidation, has spurred a pitched battle between powerful labor unions supportive of Sen. Barack Obama and big business in the presidential campaign.
Seen by the AFL-CIO as a way to boost union rolls by hundreds of thousands of new members, the hotly-contested bill has become this year's No. 1 election issue for organized labor. Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has promised union bosses that the Employee Free Choice Act will become law in 2009 if he wins the presidency in November.
"We're ready to play offense for organized labor. It's time we had a president who didn't choke saying the word 'union.' A president who strengthens our unions by letting them do what they do best: organize our workers," Mr. Obama told the AFL-CIO in Philadelphia on April 2.
"I will make it the law of the land when I'm president of the United States," Mr. Obama told the labor federation.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, a staunch opponent of the bill, has said it would deny a democratic right of workers to decide by secret ballot whether they will come under union representation or not.
The bill is "a poorly-disguised attempt by the labor unions to swell their ranks at the expense of workers' rights and employers. John McCain strongly opposes the efforts of the labor unions to strip working Americans of their right to a private ballot in deciding whether or not to organize as a union," the McCain campaign said.
The AFL-CIO announced Tuesday that it was starting "a ramped-up campaign" to make Mr. Obama's campaign pledge a political reality, beginning this week with a massive mailing to more than 600,000 swing union households in the battleground states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
That will be followed by a "massive campaign" among 13 million union voters in August to promote Mr. Obama and specifically highlight his support for the labor law reform bill known as "card check." It is estimated that organized labor will spend upward of $300 million in this year's presidential and congressional elections - much of it promoting the card-check bill and tying it to its Democratic supporters.
The AFL-CIO's campaign Web site features numerous quotes from Mr. Obama pledging to pass the card-check bill that would allow workers to form a union simply by collecting a majority of cards signed by workers supporting the unionization of their employer's business.
Under current law, once a majority of workers submit cards requesting union certification, an election is held in which workers vote by secret ballot on whether to ratify unionization. The pending bill, called the Employee Free Choice Act, does not require the secret ballot vote unless at least 30 percent of workers call for it.
The Obama campaign says the card-check bill will not necessarily deny workers the right to a private ballot.
"This is simply a debate over process. But it is up to the workers, and they should be free to choose their process," said campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro. "If they wish to vote by secret ballot instead of a card-check process, they can. The law does not strip them of that right."
But Mr. Obama is quoted in the AFL-CIO campaign Web site flatly saying the proposed law "will allow workers to form a union through majority sign-up and card-checks and strengthen penalties for those employers who are in violation" - thus bypassing the ballot procedure. Union leaders have said they prefer this to an open election in which employers and unions compete for worker votes.
The House passed the card-check bill last year by a 241-185 vote, but it was blocked in the Senate where Democrats fell nine votes short of the 60 votes needed to end a GOP filibuster
Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobby, announced it was launching the Workforce Freedom Initiative, a counteroffensive against the AFL-CIO's efforts to "take away the protection of a private ballot, giving union organizers free rein to publicly pressure workers into signing cards stating support for a union. This is un-American," said Chamber President Tom Donohue.
The Chamber will mount a "multimillion-dollar effort [to] galvanize small-business owners, workers, community leaders and citizens to preserve the rights and freedoms of Americans in the workplace," Mr. Donohue said.
"The obvious intention and design of the bill is to eliminate private ballots as the primary means of certifying unions in this country," said Steven Law, the Chamber's chief counsel.