Congressional Democrats and labor unions are moving forward with legislation to replace secret-ballot votes on unionization with a petition-based system, despite misgivings from some labor leaders that the measure has virtually no chance of becoming law while President Bush is in office.
This morning, a House subcommittee is scheduled to hold this Congress's first hearing on the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill would require employers to recognize unions formed by a method known as "card check," which involves gathering a majority of employee signatures. Under the proposed law, traditional balloting on unionization would still be possible, but it is likely to vanish as union organizers opt for the card check approach.
The director of the labor extension program at Rutgers University, Adrienne Eaton, said current labor laws favor employers and the new legislation would help reverse those advantages.
"It wouldn't cure them all, of course, but it would certainly make organizing substantially easier," she said. "The current system allows employers to mount coercive campaigns against unionization."
As part of their 2006 platform, Democrats promised quick action on the legislation. However, Republicans contend that the title of the bill is Orwellian because the measure would make workers subject to intimidation by union organizers who would know whether an individual worker signed the petition or refused to do so.
"The right to a private ballot ó a democratic cornerstone that so many have fought for during the past 200-plus years ó is in the crosshairs," Rep. Howard McKeon, a Republican of California, said in a statement Tuesday. "Democrat leaders and Big Labor interests are not even remotely shy about their intent to strip workers of the private ballot so they can advance their own agenda, even though it's at the expense of democracy itself." The trumpeting on both sides is somewhat overwrought, given that the legislation has little chance of passing.
According to the legislative director for the AFL-CIO, William Samuel, 232 House members are co-sponsoring the measure, making it likely to clear the House. "I'm confident we'll have a majority of senators supporting the bill, but we always have to guard against the possibility of a filibuster," he added.
"It's going to be very hard to get 60 votes" to overcome a filibuster, a professor of labor relations at Cornell University, Richard Hurd, said. And even if Congress passes the measure, Mr. Bush is almost certain to veto it.
"There's no way George Bush would not veto it unless he has some kind of life-changing experience," Mr. Hurd quipped.
Still, the AFL-CIO has designated the card check law as its top legislative priority. Mr. Samuel acknowledged that the quixotic nature of the effort has promoted some dissension in the ranks. "The building trades may not view this initially as their top priority," he said. "I hope people don't make too big a deal about what's no.1 and what's no. 2."
Mr. Samuel said pushing forward now will help educate members of Congress, the press, and the public about what is needed to overcome coercive tactics employers use to thwart unions. "No major social advance has happened in this country in a single year, not civil rights, not Social Security, not Medicare," he said.
The AFL-CIO also expects that the Democratic presidential candidates will endorse the measure and might have a chance to sign it into law in 2009.
Mr. Hurd said support for the measure is virtually unanimous in labor ranks but that some have asked "if it's the right way to use political capital right now." He said he believes that some of the questions have been raised by groups like the Service Employees International Union, which left the AFL-CIO recently to form a new labor federation known as Change to Win. "They have very clearly indicated that their top priority right now is in the health care arena," the professor said.
The SEIU has aggressively advocated card check during specific unionizing battles, including a high-profile campaign involving janitors at the University of Miami, but has not been at the forefront of the campaign to mandate that practice through federal legislation. The union did not issue a press release as the bill was introduced this week, although a section on the labor group's Web site expresses support for the bill. A spokeswoman for the SEIU did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Under present law, employers can recognize unions formed by card check, but there is no requirement to do so. Unionization battles tend to be protracted, and unions claim that as many as one in 20 labor organizers is fired.
"I suspect that number is a little high, but it is definitely true that if they do get fired and the company is found guilty, the penalty is minimal," Mr. Hurd said. "For an employer that doesn't want a union and is willing to violate the law, there's not really a big downside. It's less expensive than hiring a lawyer to run a legal campaign. It's a lot cheaper to fire a few people." Ms. Eaton said card check would do away with some company-backed intimidation because employers might not even know they were being organized. Asked if it was fair to have potential union members hear only the union's point of view, she said, "Because employers wield so much power, it's hard to figure out what kinds of lines to draw about employer speech."
Card check policies in Canadian provinces boosted the success rate of union drives there, but that may not carry over to America because Canadian unions were doing better to begin with. "It would at least slow down the decline in density," Mr. Hurd said. "You might even see some uptick. It would be a slow process."
Mr. Samuel acknowledged that the proposed law would not attack all the techniques employers use to stymie unions. "What we're hoping to do is really change the climate."