- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Organized labor foresees a boost for union-friendly legislation if Democrats can win the White House and expand their control of Congress this fall.

It’s working to ensure that happens.

The AFL-CIO and its affiliates collectively are expected to spend about $200 million this year on get-out-the-vote campaigns, issue ads and other election-related purposes favorable to Democratic-candidates.

“This election for the American workers is terribly, terribly important,” said former House Democratic Whip David Bonior, chairman of the labor advocacy group American Rights at Work.

“Failure to elect a pro-worker majority [in Congress] for our nation will be a continued diminution of workers rights. Our laws already are stacked against workers rights in this country today.”

After decades of dwindling membership and stagnant political relevance, labor’s influence on Capitol Hill rebounded when Democrats took control of Congress after the 2006 elections. With Democrats expected to make gains in both houses of Congress and possibly winning the White House in November, unions are gearing up for what could be their most productive era on Capitol Hill in decades.

“A bigger Democratic majority and a Democratic president is an opportunity to address [our] issues and re-balance our economy,” said Bill Samuel, director of government affairs with the AFL-CIO labor federation.

Mr. Samuel said “there’s a lot of pent-up energy” in the labor movement after it was forced to shelve much of its legislative agenda during the Republicans’ 12 years in control of Congress, which ended last year.

Labor’s biggest potential legislative prize in decades is the Employee Free Choice Act, or “card check,” a measure that would allow unions to form after getting a majority of employees to sign a card or petition.

Unions and business advocates agree that 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. Less than 8 percent of private-sector workers are in unions.

Card-check legislation failed in Congress last year, but unions are pushing to get the proposal reintroduced next year.

“This would be one of the most substantial updates to labor laws since the 1930s,” said Josh Goldstein, a spokesman with American Rights at Work. “The deck has constantly been stacked toward corporations and business for decades, and the Employee Free Choice Act would go a long way toward evening the playing field.”

Other principal components of labor’s legislative agenda include a nationalized health insurance program, an increase in family medical leave benefits, improved laws to make it easier for workers to bargain collectively and a moratorium on trade agreements with foreign governments.

Pro-business groups acknowledge that labor’s influence is a potential force not to be ignored.

“We see a labor movement that is bolder, more aggressive and frankly more effective than we’ve seen in decades,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a frequent union critic.

The chamber, saying most of labor’s agenda would hurt business and cause havoc on the economy, is responding with its own “grass-roots” effort to counter labor’s growing influence within the Democratic-controlled Congress and the November elections.

“This is a huge iceberg coming down, and we’re the ship,” said Randel K. Johnson, the U.S. chamber’s vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits. “And we need to steer clear of it.”

The chamber’s initiative borrows from tactics employed regularly by unions, such as outreach programs to mobilize individuals and local groups throughout the country, and media campaigns designed to encourage voters to pressure elected officials to take action on certain issues, such as labor’s push for card-check legislation.

The chamber declined to put a price tag on its campaign, which kicked off this month.

A few labor-backed measures already have passed Congress this year, including an extension of unemployment benefits that passed the House Wednesday. The measure now goes to the Senate, where it is likely to be included in a spending package for military operations in Afghanistan.

Congress this year approved an increase in the national minimum wage and an expansion of the food stamp program, measures also supported by organized labor.

House Democrats also have stalled votes on free-trade agreements to South Korea - pacts strongly opposed by unions.

As for card check, supporters say the method is fairer than holding a secret-ballot election because it’s a simpler, more direct approach for workers to decide whether they want to unionize. Labor adds that it would help protect itself from anti-union employers and lawmakers.

Pro-business advocates oppose the card-check method because it gives increased power to union organizers, who they say could use coercive methods to pressure employees to join the union.

Card-check opponents also say the method is undemocratic and would hurt business interests.

“We’re seeing some ‘Hail Mary’ passes from labor to completely rewrite work-force regulation laws,” Mr. Law said.

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