Thursday, March 1, 2007

Organized labor scored a major victory yesterday as House members voted in favor of a measure to make it easier for workers to join unions.

The House voted 241-185 for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to unionize by simply signing a card or petition stating their interest in joining a union, as opposed to the long-standing practice of secret-ballot elections.

Two Democrats voted against the bill, with 13 Republicans supporting it.

“This is the most important labor-law reform legislation of this generation,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

But the bill faces a tough challenge in the Senate, where Democrats have only a slight majority.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, vowed to fight the bill.

“We will not allow the progress already made on behalf of U.S. workers to be undone, nor will we allow coercion by employers or unions,” Mr. McConnell said.

The Bush administration also has vowed to veto the bill.

The pending legislation has pitted labor activists and union foes in a fierce lobbying and public-relations campaign the past few months.

Organized labor says the bill is crucial for helping defend itself from anti-union employers and lawmakers.

Opponents say the pending law is nothing more than political payback by Democrats to the unions, which significantly supported the party during the 2006 congressional elections.

Supporters of the bill say the card-signing — or “card-check” — method is more fair than holding a secret-ballot election because it’s a simpler, more-direct approach for workers to decide if they want to unionize.

And because card-check organizing is considerably quicker than conducting secret-ballot elections, which typically take weeks or longer, proponents say it reduces the potential for employers to harass and intimidate workers against joining a union.

“Today, when workers want to form a union, their employers can force them to undergo a National Labor Relations Board election process, and that process is broken because it allows irresponsible employers to harass, coerce, intimidate, reassign and even fire workers who support a union,” said Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and the bill’s main sponsor.

Unions have helped make the United States “the most prosperous, most productive nation in the world, with a vibrant middle class,” Mr. Miller added.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the bill is “simply about establishing fairness in the workplace.”

But opponents say the bill is a desperate attempt by organized labor to stay relevant.

Union membership peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with more than 35 percent of U.S. workers belonging to a union.

Last year, overall union membership was 12 percent nationally — down from 12.5 percent in 2005.

The bill would strip workers of their right to vote anonymously when deciding whether to be involved in a union, opponents say.

“We are standing on this floor, considering this bill, and ultimately, casting our votes at the end of this debate because of the power of the secret ballot,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican. “The privacy and sanctity of the secret ballot is the beauty and the backbone of this democratic process.”

Republican opponents accused Democrats of being hypocrites for supporting the bill.

“It’s ironic that Democrats who campaigned last November on promises to protect America’s privacy rights are now supporting a bill that will strip workers of the right of secret-ballot voting,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican. “This is clearly a Democrat payoff to unions instead of good policy for America.”

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican, called the bill the “worker-intimidation act” and said it was a payback by Democrats.

“This bill is a full frontal assault on American workers,” Mr. Hensarling said. “What is more fundamental to American democracy than the secret-ballot election?”

But even if the bill is defeated, Democrats almost certainly would raise the issue again if the party captures the White House in 2008, said Peter Morici, a University of Maryland business professor and a former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.

“This issue isn’t going away because the Democrats are starting to believe in it,” he said. “It’s gaining momentum.”

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