While the Obama administration and its Democratic allies in Congress press to allow private-sector workers to unionize by signing authorization cards instead of voting by secret ballot, the government’s legal-aid program for the poor has declared the so-called “card check” strategy “unreliable” and rejected an effort by some of its own workers to organize that way.
The Legal Services Corp., a congressionally chartered, taxpayer-funded entity, even hired a law firm to rebuff the efforts of workers in its oversight offices to gain union representation by the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), forcing the workers to conduct a vote by secret ballot later this week.
The LSC’s decision has prompted concerns on Capitol Hill that the government may be trying to impose a solution on private businesses that its own agencies and panels are reluctant to follow.
Calling himself a longtime supporter of the LSC and its mission, Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, in a letter last week obtained by The Washington Times, said it was “troubling to learn that LSC is now using hard-fought-for taxpayer funds to retain a law firm and engage in a campaign to potentially frustrate employees’ desire to exercise their right to join a union.”
“I hope in the spirit of President Obama’s directive and consistent with the principles of the corporation committed to protecting the rights of all Americans, LSC will do all it can to ensure those workers who wish to exercise their right to join a union and have an opportunity to do so,” Mr. Harkin added.
Card check is a key provision in the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill intended to make it easier for workers to unionize.
Organized labor, which has called the bill its top legislative priority, argues that card check is needed to counter intimidation and stalling tactics by employers when workers try to organize. Employer groups, which are virtually unanimous in their opposition to the bill, say the provision will invite abuse by ending the secret-ballot option and lead union organizers to intimidate those who refuse to sign the cards.
Mr. Obama hoped to have a bill on his desk early in his administration, but card-check legislation stalled in the face of the worsening economy, concerns of moderate and conservative Democrats, and the crush of other legislative priorities, notably health care reform.
Mr. Harkin is a powerful ally of the president and a co-sponsor, along with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, of the pro-union legislation. But he’s not alone in raising alarm about the LSC.
Employees in LSC oversight offices, with the help of the IFPTE, appealed to LSC President Helaine Barnett in a July 20 letter, asking her to accept authorization cards signed by “an overwhelming majority” of workers signaling their intent to unionize. Ms. Barnett dismissed the request in a July 28 letter, saying that “authorization cards are often an unreliable indicator of support for a union,” according to a copy of the correspondence obtained by The Times.
LSC spokesman Stephen Barr would not elaborate on the letter.
“The letter speaks for itself,” he said. He did, however, confirm that LSC retained outside counsel in the organizing effort. IFPTE officials questioned the propriety of hiring outside counsel to advise in the organizing fight in another letter to lawmakers this summer.
Mr. Barr said employees in the oversight offices “will have an opportunity to vote for collective bargaining in a secret-ballot election that begins Thursday.”
“We will have no further comment until the balloting is completed,” he said.
Some labor advocates say Ms. Barnett is within her right to refuse the authorization cards, which is why card-check legislation is needed.