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Washington Outlook Archive

Labor Organizing Bill On Hold

James A. Morrissey, Washington Correspondent

One of organized labor's highest priorities - overhaul of the procedures for union elections - has been sidelined in the face of the contentious wrangling over health care, and if, or when, the labor bill gets back on track, it may fall short of its original goals.

When Barack Obama was elected president and the Democrats won control of both the House and Senate, labor leaders felt the time was ripe for enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which previously had passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate. However, many of organized labor's staunchest supporters are being called upon to make tough votes on the health care reform legislation, and they don't seem interested in getting into another tough fight. The union has used up a good deal of its political capital in its all-out support for the public insurance option.

From the outset, the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has insisted that a card check voting provision, which would make a union a bargaining agent if more than 50 percent of the workers involved in an election sign a card supporting the union, is an essential element in the labor reform bill. The legislation also is designed to speed up elections by providing for a government arbitrator to step in after 120 days and force both sides to accept a two-year contract. There also are harsh penalties for companies that violate rules during an election.

The unions may be backing off from the card check. The Washington Post reports that at a recent meeting with a select group of Washington reporters, incoming AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the card check "may or may not" be an essential element any more. Instead, he said, the new essentials are increased penalties, stepped-up enforcement and other measures that would ensure that elections would not be drawn out indefinitely.

Even with those changes, the bill is not likely to pacify its opponents who have conducted a massive advertising and grass roots program opposing the bill. US textile and apparel manufacturers, retailers and many other businesses that are part of the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, are strongly opposed to EFCA, charging it "severely undermines long-standing principles of balance and fairness in federal labor law."

The AFL-CIO sponsored a l5-state "fly-in" to Washington September 10, where union members stressed the importance of enacting the EFCA, saying the bill "will make it possible for more workers to join together for a voice in the workplace, paving the path for long-term, sustainable economic growth."

September 15, 2009