- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Having successfully checked “card-check,” business groups are mounting a second offensive on Capitol Hill against major changes to the nation’s labor laws, seizing on another controversial aspect of the bill in hopes of thwarting an unpalatable compromise by moderate Democrats.

The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), organized labor’s top legislative priority, has sparked a fierce lobbying battle pitting the nation’s unions against virtually a united front of the nation’s major business lobbies, with the Obama administration and many centrist Democrats caught in the crossfire.

The original bill would have enabled workers to form a union if a majority of employees sign authorization cards, a “card-check provision” taking away the ability of businesses to demand a secret-ballot election in organizing battles.

Efforts by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups to paint the card-check proposal as poisonous to the economy appear to have worked as Democratic supporters struggle to round up the necessary 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But EFCA opponents now worry that some moderates could support a compromise that still includes binding arbitration.

EFCA also would stiffen penalties for labor law violations and allow for a government-appointed arbitrator to impose a binding contract if companies and workers cannot reach a collective-bargaining deal after 120 days. Both of these provisions would significantly strengthen labor’s hand in organizing battles.

“Our concern is that you would find senators that know this is a bad bill but would perhaps be lured into voting for what we call ‘card check lite,’” said Glenn Spencer, executive director of the Chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative.

Despite some early setbacks, bill backers say they have not given up the fight.

An aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and a lead EFCA sponsor, said the senator is “still working toward labor reform this year.”

“Talks are continuing on Capitol Hill as they always have,” the aide said. “We are making progress.”

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican turned Democrat from Pennsylvania who could cast a key Senate vote on a modified EFCA, hinted to a crowd of union activists in Pittsburgh over the weekend that he might be ready to accept the compromise labor bill.

“I think you’ll be satisfied with my vote on this issue on union organizing and on first contract,” Mr. Specter said.

One compromise that Democrats reportedly are floating would allow employees to send in their voting cards by mail rather than in public. Opponents of the bill say this proposal would do little to guard against intimidation.

“That’s just EFCA in drag,” said Katie Packer of the Workforce Fairness Institute, another business-backed anti-EFCA group. “How does putting a card in the mail take away the ability of people to intimidate and coerce you into signing it?”

Mr. Spencer said the bill’s “real job-killing potential” rests in the power of a government-appointed arbitrator to impose a legally binding two-year contract on both parties if a company’s management and the newly formed union fail to agree to a first contract within 120 days. Union leaders said current law encourages firms simply to stall and prevent a contract from ever being negotiated.

“In our opinion, binding arbitration is actually much more dangerous [than card check],” Mr. Spencer said. “It may be a contract that the employers simply can’t live with.”

About 280 business owners from across the country were in town to meet with key senators last week in the third “fly-in” this year to oppose EFCA. Late last month, opponents held a roundtable discussion featuring former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican.

Like the business groups, labor unions and bill supporters say they are fighting in the best interests of workers and the economy. When he introduced the bill, Mr. Harkin said passage is crucial to ensuring that the economic recovery is “fair” and that wealth is not concentrated in the hands of a few.

EFCA proponents say the balance of power tilted sharply in corporate America’s favor under the Bush administration, and have looked to President Obama and the larger Democratic majorities in Congress to counter that.

“I think everybody from labor to Senator Specter to even some big businesses agree that we need major labor law reform right now,” said Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, and Mr. Specter came out against the original bill, which included card check. Other Democrats — including Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Dianne Feinstein of California — have voiced reservations.

For organized labor and the business community, there appears to be little, if any, middle ground.

Asked what kind of a compromise the union would support, Ms. Setzer said it would have to “adhere to the principles of EFCA” and include card check, stiffer labor violation penalties and assurance that workers who voted for a union are “actually able to get to a first contract in a reasonable amount of time.”

Asked the same question, Ms. Packer said her group would not support any bill that includes card check or binding arbitration.

The bill is expected to easily pass the House of Representatives, but the near-certain prospect of a Republican filibuster means supporters must attract 60 votes in the Senate.

Democrats now control 59 votes in the Senate and would have to attract at least one Republican or hope that Democrat Al Franken can win the still-disputed race for the last vacant Senate seat from Minnesota.

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