- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In what a Democratic sponsor described as “one of those defining moments” in U.S. history, a bill to make union organizing easier was introduced in both chambers Tuesday, stoking an already intense lobbying assault between labor and business groups.

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and Rep. George Miller, California Democrat, unveiled the legislation known as “card check,” which is fiercely opposed by the business lobby, even as Mr. Harkin conceded Democrats do not yet have the 60 votes to stop a Republican filibuster. In fact, several senators who supported the bill in the past are back on the fence this year.

“At the present time, I would have difficulty supporting the bill,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat. “We keep hearing different ideas on how it may be modified, so I’ll look at it again when that happens.”

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The Employee Free Choice Act would enable workers to form a union if a majority of employees sign authorization cards, taking away the ability of businesses to require a secret-ballot election.

Mr. Harkin and Mr. Miller tied union organizing to the current recession, saying the legislation is necessary to ensure an eventual economic recovery will be “fair.”

“Concentrating so much wealth and power in the hands of the few is unsustainable,” said Mr. Harkin, referring to an imbalance between worker and management salaries. “We’ve gotten the message loud and clearly.”

But Republicans and business groups argued that eliminating the secret ballot would result in job losses, among other charges. Meanwhile, a Citi investment research analyst downgraded Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to a “hold” rating Tuesday, fearing the retail giant would be unions’ first target if the bill were to pass.

“Secret ballot elections are a fundamental tenet of American democracy,” said Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican and chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee. “Unfortunately, congressional Democrats are willing to trample this essential liberty to pay back their special-interest friends. Their plan will absolutely open the door to intimidation and coercion, which should have no place in America.”

The bill has 223 co-sponsors in the House, all but guaranteeing its passage there. But its fate is unclear in the Senate, where Democrats want the bill to move first. Passage there would require votes from all 58 Democrats and disputed Minnesota Senate candidate Al Franken, if he is seated, in addition to at least one Republican. The bill stalled two years ago with 46 sponsors and now only has 40, with key moderate Democrats now expressing doubts.

Mr. Harkin said he does not oppose amendments to the bill so long as the core principles remain intact. “By the time we bring it up, we’ll have our votes,” he said, predicting sometime after Easter recess.

The bill would almost certainly result in more dues-paying union members for powerful labor groups who support it. It would also impose stiffer penalties on employers who violate labor laws and would require arbitration if companies and workers cannot reach a collective bargaining deal after 90 days.

“We thank the House of Representatives and the Senate for introducing the Employee Free Choice Act, which will restore workers’ freedom to bargain for fair wages, job security, better health care and secure pensions,” said John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.

The business-backed Workforce Fairness Institute accused the bill sponsors of merely catering to a reliably Democratic voting bloc.

“Today, Congressman Miller and Senator Harkin made a choice: they chose to stand with union bosses in Washington, D.C., and turn their backs on the nation’s biggest job creators - small business owners and their employees,” said Katie Packer, executive director of the group.

Mr. Harkin dismissed such objections as “scare tactics.”

President Obama has already signed executive orders supporting key labor agenda items, but the new bill is sparking the sharpest fight between the labor and business lobbies. Labor unions provided critical support for Mr. Obama in key Midwestern states during the presidential campaign and also claim credit for helping elect a number of new House and Senate Democrats.

David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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