By Staff Report
Apr. 30, 2009
Vice President Joe Biden got to know Sen. Arlen Specter pretty well on many Amtrak train rides they shared while commuting from Washington to their homes in Delaware and Pennsylvania, respectively, when Biden was in the Senate.
Now that Specter has joined Biden in the Democratic Party, he doesn’t expect the former Republican to change his opposition to a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize. Specter reiterated that stance in announcing his party switch on Tuesday, April 28.
“Arlen is a close friend but a very independent guy,” Biden told reporters in a conference call Wednesday, April 29. “I take Arlen at his word.”
Biden anticipated that Specter would entertain supporting a modified bill. “Arlen will have an open mind if a compromise is offered,” he said. “He’ll listen to alternatives.”
Specter came out against the Employee Free Choice Act in March, saying that he opposed two key provisions.
One would allow a union to form when a majority of workers sign cards authorizing one. Another would impose binding arbitration if employers and a union didn’t reach a first contract within 120 days.
But Specter also asserted that labor laws are not working properly. He proposed amending the National Labor Relations Act.
Specter’s decision to change parties reduces the number of Republicans in the Senate to 40, which is one short of the number they need to block legislation through a filibuster. That maneuver was used in a previous Congress to kill EFCA.
After more than four decades as a Republican, Specter said that he did not want to run in the 2010 Pennsylvania Republican primary. His vote in favor of the $787 billion stimulus bill earlier this year has “caused a schism” that has made differences with the party “irreconcilable,” he said in a statement.
But Specter vowed to maintain his independence. “My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats than I was for the Republicans,” he said in a statement. “I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice [card check] will not change.”
Biden said that the White House supports EFCA, which is the top legislative priority for unions.
“We’ve been listening to organized labor as well as business on their mutual concerns about [the bill],” Biden said.
Biden asserted that current labor laws, which allow companies to demand a secret-ballot election, create obstacles for workers to form unions.
“That’s been made such a tricky wicket for labor to go through,” Biden said. “I am hopeful we will get card check passed.”
The business lobby opposes the bill because it says the measure will effectively end the right to a secret ballot for union elections and raise labor costs for corporations.
Supporters of the legislation maintain that the bill does not remove the secret ballot; it simply gives workers a choice of which process—ballot or card check—to use. They also say that strengthening unions will give employees leverage to raise wages and benefits. About 7.6 percent of workers in the private sector are unionized.
Glenn Spencer, executive director of the Workforce Freedom Initiative at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said EFCA faces an uphill battle even after Specter’s defection to the Democrats.
He noted that Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas, opposes the bill. Other moderate Democrats also have raised concerns and refused to co-sponsor the measure.
“In reality, they’re at least two votes short of the 60 they need,” Spencer said. “I don’t know that Specter changing the letter behind his name significantly changes the calculus on this issue.”
Mike Aitken, director of government affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management, said that Specter’s move will heighten interest in his proposal for a compromise. But it won’t ensure EFCA approval.
“It’s got to get more than just Specter to be viable,” Aitken said.
But Josh Goldstein, spokesman for American Rights at Work, said that Specter’s move gave EFCA momentum.
“It’s a new day for the Employee Free Choice Act,” he said. “We’ll continue to work with Sen. Specter on finding ways to create real labor law reform this year.”
Providing employees a “fair and direct path” to unionization, imposing “real penalties” on employers for labor law violations and ensuring a first contract in a reasonable amount of time are reform principles that won’t be diluted, Goldstein said.
“We need to let the legislative process on the Employee Free Choice Act play out … before we can get to counting [vote] numbers,” Goldstein said.
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