Angling for a critical Senate swing vote to pass the “card check” bill that would make it easier to form unions, Pennsylvania labor leaders promised Sen. Arlen Specter that they will switch union members from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party to help him win a tough 2010 primary election, The Washington Times has learned.
Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President William M. George said he pledged Mr. Specter “all kinds of help from the union” in a series of meetings to woo the Republican senator’s support for the bill, which would ease rules favoring secret-ballot elections to unionize workplaces.
“We are pushing to give him help in the primary, including changing Democrats to Republicans for the primary,” Mr. George told The Times. “It’s hard to do because of other races in the state … but we’ll do it for ‘card check.’ ”
The legislation is a top priority for labor leaders now that they have a Democratic ally in the White House ready to sign it into law, and the bargaining with voter registration in Pennsylvania shows how far the unions will go to secure victory.
Pennsylvania persists as a union stronghold with 1.4 million union members and union retirees, accounting for more than 10 percent of the population and one-third of households. About 73 percent of the bloc are registered Democrats, according to the state AFL-CIO.
Mr. Specter’s office declined to comment specifically on Mr. George’s promise.
Mr. Specter previously said he would not bend to party loyalty nor special-interest pressure but do what his conscience tells him is in the interest of the nation or the state.
“I’ve been in this line of work long enough so that people, thoroughly stated, know that my arm’s not twistable,” Mr. Specter said last week. “I’m going to decide this on the merits, and I’m going to hear everybody out. I’m still thinking about it.”
He can expect to suffer the union’s wrath if he opposes the bill.
“If he votes against us,” Mr. George said, “we will rise the intensity, possibly with another candidate and possibly another moderate in the Republican Party.”
The bill’s adversaries accused the union of trying to buy Mr. Specter’s vote.
“It is surprising in this era of change that anyone would be brazen enough to suggest a quid pro quo” of endorsements and other political support, said Jerry Gorski, national chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a group spearheading opposition to the bill.
“Why would the AFL-CIO throw their support to a candidate based on one single issue?” he asked, accusing the union of trying to “buy” Mr. Specter.
Mr. Specter is a centrist Republican whose vote is viewed by Democrats and union bosses as key to passing the bill in the Senate, where a 60-vote threshold to move the legislation presents the largest and probably only hurdle for the most radical change of labor laws in more than 60 years.
The legislation, dubbed the Employee Free Choice Act, would allow workers to form a union through majority sign-up of a union card - a “card check” - instead of the traditional secret-ballot polling.
Both sides of the debate agree that the change likely would expand union membership, a boon for a labor movement whose ranks have dwindled to about 12 percent of the work force from the 20 percent it was 25 years ago.
The bill also beefs up penalties for employers who violate labor laws and imposes binding government arbitration to settle contract disputes.
Supporters say the legislation will expand union membership and increase the quality of life for middle-class Americans with better wages, benefits and working conditions. Critics, including business groups mobilized to kill the bill, say it will cripple restaurant, hotel and construction industries, as well as myriad small businesses, and put legions of workers in the unemployment line.
The unions and the business interests have launched intense lobbying and national TV ad campaigns, and both are targeting Mr. Specter.
The legislation was introduced in the House and the Senate last week. Sponsors said they did not have the 60 votes lined up to advance the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he will wait until summer to bring the legislation to the floor, giving him and other backers time to wrangle votes from members such as Mr. Specter and Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both Arkansas Democrats wavering on the bill.
Weighing on Mr. Specter’s decision about the bill is an expected fierce primary challenge from his party’s conservative wing, possibly from Pat Toomey, president of the limited-government, low-tax crusading Club for Growth.
Mr. Specter, a six-term incumbent, already must fend off criticism from conservatives for his pivotal role crossing party lines to pass President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus.
“For Specter, this vote will be the most momentous moment since his interrogation of Anita Hill,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the political center at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., referring to the sensational confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
“There’s no wiggle room on card check,” Mr. Madonna said. “Typically he gets some labor and some business support. Either way he votes, he will alienate one of these huge groups.”