Labor unions have new hope that after eight years of hostile policies from the Bush administration and Republican leaders in Congress, they might regain some of their old organizing strength. They're pushing Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure that would make it easier for workers to unionize.
Business groups have vowed to stop them, and a spokeswoman for one group predicts a fight "of monumental proportions."
The bill's most-debated provision is, for arcane reasons, called "card check." It would lower the threshold for workers to unionize. Under current rules, the first step is for a company's workers to sign cards stating that they support the organizing effort. If more than 30 percent of them sign, then the company can demand an election, with secret ballots. The card-check provision would let in the union if more than half of the workers signed — meaning companies would lose the power to require an election.
Voters in states with big Senate races heard plenty about this last fall. Both sides shoveled millions of dollars into TV ads.
One business group, the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, ran a series of spots starring Vince Curatola, who played a mobster in The Sopranos. In the ads, Curatola hammed it up as a union thug. In Minnesota, where Republican incumbent Norm Coleman opposed the bill and Democratic challenger Al Franken supported it, Curatola's character called Coleman a hero, added, "I hate heroes," and then praised Franken as "My pal Al." (In a minor distraction, Curatola had to explain that he wasn't personally taking a position on the bill; it was just business.)
The outcome of the Minnesota election still isn't certified. Franken won the last recount before the court challenges began. If the seat flips to the Democrats, they will have a 59-seat U.S. Senate majority — just one vote shy of the 60 needed to block a filibuster. That would be a hard blow to opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act, who regard the Senate as their last line of defense on Capitol Hill. It's a foregone conclusion that the House, under Democrats' control, will pass the bill.
The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, which claims 500 member organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans For Tax Reform, has continued its efforts. But while the coalition used a comedic union figure for its ads, the pro-worker alliance American Rights At Work produced a real organizer at a Washington news conference this week. Joe Sorrentino took the day off work and flew down from Rhode Island to describe his activities on a unionizing campaign at the supermarket chain where he's employed.
He concluded: "I don't see what the big problem [is] with giving Americans better pay, medical coverage and a secure job — I mean, we're incredible people, we organize, we can do anything, and I don't see why we couldn't do this."
Still, unions have steadily lost strength in the private sector since the 1950s.
Now, each side uses statistics to claim underdog status. Those stats were flying when the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a confirmation hearing last week for Labor Secretary-designate Hilda Solis.
Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, citing data that unions win more than 60 percent of contested elections these days, asked, "If employer interference is so prevalent, how can unions win such a high percentage of elections?"
But Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, rattled off a string of statistics showing employers with the upper hand. His final volley: "Today, if an employee is engaged in a union-organizing campaign, that employee has a 1-in-5 chance of getting fired."
Solis avoided talking about the labor bill, even though she had co-sponsored it in 2007 as a member of the House of Representatives.
As controversial as the card-check provision is, it may not be the key element in the measure. Another provision would halt the commonly used business practice of stalling and prolonging negotiations on a union's first contract. Under the bill, federal arbitrators could step in and impose a two-year contract.
"We think, you know, this is not a pro-worker piece of legislation," says Rhonda Bentz, spokeswoman for the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace. "Effectively removing secret-ballot elections doesn't seem pro-worker. Supporting a provision that forces government bureaucrats to dictate contracts doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me."
She said that when the bill comes up in Congress, likely in the spring, "it's going to be a fight of monumental proportions."
Unions have enlisted a phalanx of liberal allies reaching far beyond the usual labor circles: They include the NAACP, the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women. Mary Beth Maxwell, director of American Rights At Work, said, "I am incredibly hopeful about the momentum we have right now, for restoring some balance and fairness for workers' rights. Voters have spoken up. They want change."
Now, labor and business are ramping up lobbying campaigns, including more TV spots.
Both sides insist there's no room for compromise. But some observers say congressional horse-trading may enter the equation. One theory circulating among lobbyists has the Obama administration supporting the Employee Free Choice Act in exchange for labor's willingness to accommodate some free-trade provisions later on. The president-elect strongly endorsed the bill during his campaign.
Michael Lotito, a San Francisco partner at the employment-law firm Jackson Lewis, says he "would be flabbergasted" if there isn't an attempt to water down the measure and offer labor some benefits in economic relief bills. But Jackson Lewis is already marketing an "EFCA Defense Kit" to employers, instructing them that both attentiveness to employee needs and vigilance will help to "make unions irrelevant to your workforce."
"In some ways," Lotito said, "we don't care whether or not EFCA does or does not pass."