Battle heats up on union measure

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Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken is knocked as anti-worker.

Corporate America is mocked as being run by overpaid fat cats.

As organized labor and its Democratic allies push to change federal rules that would make it easier to unionize, they’re squaring off with pro-business groups in one of the most aggressive and expensive ad wars of the election season.

The American Rights at Work group on Labor Day began a $5 million four-week nationwide cable-television ad campaign in support of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow unions to organize new locals if a majority of employees sign cards or petitions - bypassing the traditional secret-ballot method of organizing.

The ad depicts an actor representing a corporate executive on a seesaw with an announcer saying, “CEOs’ salaries are getting fatter and fatter.” The laughing chief executive’s smile drops when a group of “workers” sit on the plank’s opposite end, suspending him above the ground.

The group, which ran the ad in battleground states, says it may consider more ad buys later this year.

“When there is a difficulty to get a union in your workplace, that’s a disadvantage for workers,” said Josh Goldstein, a spokesman with the pro-union group. “This is more about the economy, it’s more about health care, and it’s more about the minimum wage than it is about the labor movement.”

Both sides of the debate agree the “card-check measure,” if passed, would dramatically enhance labor’s ability to increase its membership. U.S. union membership has fallen from 35 percent of the work force in the mid-1950s to about 12 percent in 2007. Less than 8 percent of private-sector workers are in unions.

“The strength of labor in this country is a measurement of the success of our economy - it really is,” Mr. Goldstein said. “You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement.”

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce TV ad in Minnesota portrays Mr. Franken’s support of the card-check proposal as akin to denying workers’ rights, saying that “taking away the private vote is just plain undemocratic.”

The chamber is running a multimillion-dollar ad campaign against the measure in Maine and other battleground states, and may expand the effort elsewhere in the coming weeks, officials said.

“But that will pale in comparison to the $400 million the unions will spend on this,” said Glenn Spencer, who heads the chamber’s anti-card-check campaign. “We are definitely outgunned on this, but we have a winning message, I think, and the unions don’t.”

The labor movement collectively is expected to spend about $400 million on promoting candidates and issues this election cycle, including more than $200 million from the powerful AFL-CIO labor federation. But union officials say only a portion of the total amount will be spent directly on supporting card-check legislation.

The Change to Win labor federation will spend “tens of millions of dollars” promoting the Employee Free Choice Act, said Executive Director Chris Chafe. The campaign will include TV, radio and print ads in Oregon, Alaska, Minnesota, Mississippi and New Hampshire, as well as other battleground states.

“It’s a major, major priority for Change to Win and its affiliates,” said Mr. Chafe, whose coalition includes the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union.

The AFL-CIO hasn’t bought ads yet in support of card check, but instead has focused on promoting the proposal internally to its members, said Fred Azcarate, who heads the group’s pro-card-check efforts. But he said the federation may run ads in the coming weeks.

“We’re looking at all our options in terms of paid advertising,” he said.

Union and Democratic leaders, including presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, say the card-signing - or card-check - method is fairer than the secret ballot method because it’s a simpler, more direct approach for workers to decide whether they want to unionize. Unions argue they need the legislation to defend against anti-union companies and lawmakers, which they blame in part for decades of declining membership.

Opponents of the bill, including big businesses such as Wal-Mart, say Democrats are making a desperate attempt to pander to organized labor - one of the party’s most loyal backers. They add the proposal would deprive workers of their privacy and their right to vote.

The fight over the bill has underscored the historic alliances of labor with Democrats and business with Republicans. The GOP added a plank to its policy platform that demands workers retain the right to unionize through secret-ballot elections.

Former New York mayor and one-time Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani recently told The Washington Times that Democratic efforts to change the labor voting system would leave workers vulnerable to corruption and intimidation.

A card-check proposal passed the House last year 241-185, largely along party lines. It failed in the Senate 51-48 - nine votes short of the 60 needed to proceed to final passage.

Democrats say they will reintroduce the measure next year.

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