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Spurred by the new Democratic majority in Congress and the possibility of a Democratic administration in 2008, the labor movement is making its biggest push in 30 years for a radical change in labor law with a bill that would make it easier for employees to form unions. The issue is crucial for a union movement that represents only 7.4 percent of the private work force — around 8 million people, a figure that is dropping every year. And it’s equally critical for business, whose rhetoric against the bill is as heavy-handed as the measure’s title: the Employee Free Choice Act of 2007. As expected, the bill’s union-backed sponsors won a March 1 vote in the House by a 241-185 margin. The vote was intensely partisan, with only two Democrats voting against the bill, and only 13 Republicans — most of whom come from more heavily industrialized districts — voting for it. “This is huge,” says the AFL-CIO’s Kelly Ross. “And it takes it one step towards enactment.” The bill is clearly a top priority for labor, a cashing in of chits for the Democrats’ unexpected takeover of both chambers of Congress. “In our meetings with congressional staff, the thing we hear back is: �This is organized labor’s No. 1 priority,’” says the National Association of Manufacturers’ Jason Straczewski. The next step is the larger one. In the Senate, Democrats have a one-vote majority and the likely support of almost every member of the caucus, but proponents stand almost no chance of defeating a GOP filibuster. Even if the bill did manage to pass the Senate, President George W. Bush has already promised a veto. The Employee Free Choice Act, however, is a classic legislative slog, one whose vote counts for future years will be built squarely on the votes of previous Congresses. It’s also a fight in which its proponents believe a Democrat in the White House could make all the difference. “This is a multi-year battle,” says the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Michael Eastman. “We don’t know who will be in the White House in two years. But the better the vote is now, the less chance there is that members will want to bring up this issue again.” Eastman, like his other lobbying colleagues in the business community, is acutely aware of the bill’s pedigree. In 1977, the last time Big Labor had a chance to make significant changes to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, the legislation was defeated after a bitter battle that left the labor movement exhausted and, business lobbyists say, traumatized as well. Six times the Democratic majority tried to break a filibuster led by freshman Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). But the most they could muster was 58 votes, two fewer than needed to cut off debate and hold an up-or-down vote. “It just sort of went away after that,” says Eastman. His Chamber is part of a coalition that includes, among its biggest players, the Associated Builders and Contractors, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Retail Federation, the National Restaurant Association, the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the American Hotel and Lodging Association. “We need to beat it badly enough,” adds the Wholesalers’ Jade West, echoing the 1977 vote, “that the Democrats won’t come back.” UNION BUILDING That attitude, of course, has only heightened the intensity of this year’s battle, which, like any pitched congressional fight, takes an extremely complicated issue — in this case the body of law and statutes that have grown up around the labor-relations act — and reduces it to competing soundbites. For the business community, it’s “fair elections decided by secret ballots.” For labor unions, the “Free Choice” in the bill is about workers’ ability to “freely” choose, with minimal employer input, whether they want a union. Under current law, which the proposed bill would change, a minimum of 30 percent of employees must first sign a union card in order to qualify for a National Labor Relations Board-supervised election, which would determine in a secret ballot whether a company’s employees want to unionize, and which must take place within 60 days. In 2005, the NLRB held 2,267 elections in which 150,553 employees were eligible to vote. Unions lost in 60 percent of those elections. From the unions’ perspective, that failure rate affirms their biggest complaint about the current system: that employers use their inherent power over employees to coerce workers into voting against forming a union. After all, “the employer determines one of the most critical aspects of somebody’s life, whether the employee gets a paycheck or not,” notes former NLRB General Counsel Fred Feinstein, who teaches labor policy at the University of Maryland. “He signs the check, and makes the decision as to whether this person will continue to be gainfully employed.” The new bill would automatically establish a union, with no election required, if more than 50 percent of employees sign union cards. Business lobbyists, however, say their employees are free to vote however they want, since it is a secret ballot. And when they reject a union, it’s simply on the basis of the facts in a globally competitive environment. And they argue that employees can apply their own particular peer pressure on wavering colleagues to encourage them to sign union cards, pressures that can be as powerful as any an employer can bring to bear. And not just in the workplace. Union members can visit employees at home or ask them to fill out a union card over a beer at the bowling alley. “Imagine if you didn’t sign that card, how are you going to feel?” says the Manufacturers’ Straczewski. SPECTER IN THE BALANCE Right now, labor unions and business advocates are blanketing Capitol Hill, trying to line up the handful of crucial votes that are still in play in the Senate. This will be the third year in a row the bill has been introduced in the Senate. But now that Democrats are in control and the measure’s chief sponsor, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, it will almost certainly be voted out of committee this Congress and head to the Senate floor. Labor lobbyists, however, are starting their Senate campaign minus a public commitment from the sole Republican vote they could count on last year: Pennsylvania moderate Arlen Specter. Specter’s office says he is still studying the measure, but one business lobbyist says he believes there’s another reason. “This is a guy who likes to be in the middle of everything, the one who makes the deal,” the lobbyist says. “Specter will enhance his ability to do that this Congress if he takes a more neutral position.” One labor lobbyist, however, says he is confident Specter will vote for the bill, and he is just biding his time until the bill is closer to a vote. “Why get beat up for three months from every small business in Pennsylvania?” But Specter, whose office declined to respond to the lobbyists’ speculation, is just one of several Republicans that Democrats will need if they expect to reach the magic 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. Among the most likely targets are Republican senators in states with constituencies that are heavily unionized, like Alaska (Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski), or that trend Democratic, like Oregon (Gordon Smith), Maine (Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe), and New Hampshire, where two incumbent Republican House members lost to Democrats in November. Of that group, there’s an even smaller subset, including Stevens, Smith, Collins, and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, who are up for re-election next year. For the business community, anti-union efforts are still one of the most reliable fund-raising tools around. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised,” the Wholesalers’ West says. “We had a 12 to 13 percent response to our e-mail to write their congressmen and senators. We sent out over 1,000 letters in four days. Our members really care about this. They care about it a whole lot.” As for the labor movement, whose outside supporters include such groups as the Sierra Club, the Democratic Leadership Council, and the NAACP, the issue has equally high priority. “We’ll try to get 60,” says Ross, the AFL-CIO legislative representative. “And it may be that they’ll filibuster and we can’t. If that happens, we’ll be right back in the next Congress. We’re in this until we win.” And, Ross says, if there’s a Democrat in the White House by 2009, “it certainly helps getting it signed into law.”
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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