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.
"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.
More recently, LSC has been criticized for spending tax dollars on a lavish, Italian decorative natural-stone wall, no-bid contracts for consultants, alcohol for a congressional party and more than 100 casino hotel rooms that were rented but never occupied at a conference on Indian tribal courts, as uncovered by The Washington Times.