WASHINGTON – Organized labor and business groups are facing off in an increasingly intense battle over legislation that would make it easier to organize unions, as labor seeks to bolster its dwindling ranks and propel its agenda for working Americans.
The Employee Free Choice Act – which would require employers to recognize unions once a majority of workers sign cards of support – would be perhaps the most significant change in federal labor law in six decades. Currently, employers can demand that workers hold secret-ballot elections on whether to organize; labor organizers say that method allows companies to pressure workers through a formal campaign.
The union proposal is strongly endorsed by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and a bevy of congressional Democrats, who see it as a way to increase the clout of workers who have been losing economic ground over the past three decades.
Fierce opposition to the measure has emerged from a coalition of business groups, which describe the proposed legislation as a power grab by struggling unions, whose membership has dropped from 20 percent of all workers to 12 percent in the past 25 years. The groups say the measure would result in workers being pressured into joining unions.
“It changes the balance of power that is struck in labor law,” said Richard Berman, executive director of the Employee Freedom Action Committee, a nonprofit organization that officials said has raised $25 million to oppose the measure.
The proposal is also opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and a long roster of congressional Republicans.
The so-called card-check proposal passed the House in early 2007 but was defeated in the Senate by a GOP filibuster. In any event, the bill faced a certain veto from President Bush.
Now, however, the battle is surfacing anew ahead of the elections, and both sides are investing more than ever in making their respective cases, with television ads and grass-roots organizing. Opponents of the measure are focusing their efforts on states with competitive Senate races – including Minnesota, Maine, Mississippi and Colorado – on the theory that even if Obama becomes president, they can continue to block the union effort in the Senate.
“In 2007, it was almost an artificial exercise that no one figured would pass,” said Steven Law, general counsel of the chamber. “Now all of a sudden there is a realization that there may be a president in the White House who would sign it.”
Besides saying it would be a boon to unions, opponents charge that the “card check” system is fundamentally undemocratic. They say that if workers do not have access to a private ballot, they easily can be coerced into supporting union organizing efforts.
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