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“It’s in the hands of the employers; that’s what the Employee Free Choice Act is all about,” said Pat Szymanski, general counsel for Change to Win, a labor coalition that includes the Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The preference of the LSC, which is legally structured as a nonprofit corporation, for using the secret-ballot election process complies with federal organizing requirements. Federal agency employees, unlike their counterparts in the private sector, aren’t permitted to unionize voluntarily using authorization cards.

“They have to go through the secret-ballot election,” said Sarah Whittle Spooner, legal counsel for the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which has jurisdiction over government agencies. “There is no process for voluntarily organizing in the federal sector.”

Katie Packer, executive director of the Workforce Fairness Institute, which opposes the Employee Free Choice Act, said this amounted to a double standard.

“It’s the height of hypocrisy to say that when [the government’s] interests are at stake it’s not an accurate way to hold an election, but when it’s a [private] company, it is,” she said.

However, she said LSC made the right decision. “We totally agree with them: This is not an accurate way to judge support,” she said.

Josh Goldstein, a spokesman with American Rights at Work, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, said it probably would be in Ms. Barnett’s interest to accept the cards rather than go through a time-consuming election.

“The workers would have a union, and they could move forward and get back to the actual work they are supposed to be doing,” he said. “Whereas now, even if you go in with the best of intentions, outsiders are going to be coming in to create another step in the process.”

According to the unions’ data, more than a half-million workers have agreed to organize by way of authorization cards since 2003.

Officials at the National Labor Relations Board, which will conduct and oversee the upcoming election, said the LSC’s union elections are scheduled for Thursday and Tuesday.

LSC distributes grants to legal-aid groups nationwide that, in turn, help the poor with civil cases ranging from domestic abuse and child custody to home foreclosures and disability benefits. It received $390 million in federal funds for 2009.

The nonprofit corporation came under fire a few years ago - for paying for limousines, first-class airfare and $14 pastries for its executives - after Inspector General Kirt West exposed the expenditures. LSC board members considered firing Mr. West after the revelations, and speculation about his ouster sent shock waves through the agency.

Those who question LSC’s spending continue to worry about retaliation. Paul Shearon, IFPTE treasurer, told The Times earlier this year that oversight workers “are not having any input into the way their agency is run.”

The LSC workers in the Office of Compliance and Enforcement and the Office of Program Performance “feel pretty well ignored by management at this point in regards to their concerns,” Mr. Shearon said, adding that the workers whose job it is to notify management about problems fear reprisals.

“They have concerns about wanting to keep a low profile, because they feel threatened,” he said.

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