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CongressNow: Labor Union Sets Sights on ‘Card Check’ Measure

Unions and Congressional Democrats believe a Barack Obama presidency could mean that after years of futility, the political stars might finally align to pass controversial labor organizing legislation.

The legislation, known as the Employee Free Choice Act, or card check act, requires employers to recognize a union if the National Labor Relations Board finds a majority of employees have signed cards designating the union as their bargaining representative. It also mandates arbitration if contract negotiations stall and imposes penalties on employers that illegally coerce workers not to join unions.

Under the current law, employers, not workers, decide whether to accept signed cards that allow employees to form unions.

Since the 1970s, pro-labor Democrats have sought to pass the legislation but have faced opposition from either Congressional Republicans or a GOP administration. The measure cleared the House this year but has stalled in the Senate, where Democrats lacked the votes to overcome a GOP filibuster.

“The best way to see that employees receive their fair share of America’s prosperity is to give them a stronger voice in the workplace,” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said during floor debate earlier this year. “Year after year, Congress has refused to act against these union-busting tactics that are now all too familiar in the workplace. It’s time to listen to the voice of America’s working men and women, and give them what they want and deserve — a fair voice in the workplace and a fair chance at the American dream.”

Obama got his start in politics organizing community groups on Chicago’s Southside and has indicated he would press the issue if elected. In the Senate, Obama has a reliably pro-labor record and has backed Democratic efforts to pass the union card check legislation.

“Workers should have the freedom to choose whether to join a union without harassment or intimidation from their employers,” Obama’s campaign position paper states. “Although an estimated 60 million Americans would join a union if given the opportunity, companies too often deny workers the opportunity to organize and improve their lives.”

The Democratic Party platform also states, “We will strengthen the ability of workers to organize unions and fight to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.” About 12 percent of the workforce belongs to labor unions.

Chris Chafe, executive director of the union coalition Change to Win, said the measure is needed because employers routinely intimidate employees who are trying to unionize, including retaliating against those who are leading that effort. Chafe called it “un-American” to pressure employees and said NLRB takes too long to act on complaints of anti-union treatment.

This legislation is the “most important and immediate” priority for labor, said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s legislative director. Without such protections, employees lose their rights to collective bargaining, leading to job loss and loss of wages and benefits, he added.

Business groups say one of their top goals next year is to to defeat the legislation.

This bill is “one of the most important pieces of legislation we see,” said Keith Smith, director of employment and labor policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, which opposes the bill. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokesman added that this bill and other labor issues make this “one of the most important elections for the business community.”

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) opposes card check as an unnecessary burden on small businesses. The legislation would eliminate the secret ballots that workers need to avoid intimidation, his campaign’s position papers states. McCain consistently voted against the legislation when it came up in the Senate.

Heath Weems, NAM’s director of education and workforce policy, said the legislation undercuts workers by taking away the privacy related to a secret ballot and opens workers up to more pressure and intimidation. Industry groups also maintain that while union leadership supports card check, the members do not.

Union groups counter that the legislation does not get rid of the secret ballot, Chafe said. Instead, the bill removes the requirement that there be an agreement between the union and the employer before certifying that a majority of employees want to unionize.

Beyond getting Obama into the White House, labor officials are also focused on Democrats gaining seats in the Senate so they can eliminate the threat of a Republican filibuster on labor bills.

Chafe said this could be a “watershed election” that puts Democrats in a position to move the labor agenda forward. Unions would push other labor bills if Obama is elected, including several anti-discrimination bills, paid leave legislation and more stringent Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, particularly involving ergonomics.

“We don’t need tweaks around the edges,” Chafe said of labor’s broad legislative agenda.

A Senate GOP aide said that if Democrats are able to capture 60 Senate seats, or close to that, “big labor will just run the table” on all of its priorities.

Unions want a “total overhaul” of the labor law system, and passage of card check will only embolden them, NAM’s Smith said.