GOP Introduces Bill Mandating Secret-Ballot Union Elections

By Staff Report

Feb. 25, 2009

Capitol Hill Republicans threw the first legislative punch in the fight over union law on Wednesday, February 25. But Democrats could land a haymaker of their own later with a bill that is much more likely to obtain congressional approval.

Members of the House and Senate GOP introduced a bill that would mandate secret-ballot elections to form a union. The measure is meant to counter a bill Democrats could debut any day that would make it easier for employees to organize.

Called the Employee Free Choice Act, the Democratic bill would force companies to recognize unions when a majority of workers sign cards authorizing one. Under current law, corporations can require a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

Proponents of the EFCA argue that it will protect workers from intimidation and delaying tactics that employers use to stymie unions. But Republicans who unveiled the Secret Ballot Protection Act on Wednesday assert that the EFCA would foster union coercion during organizing campaigns because the cards have to be signed publicly.

“With this bill, we’re sending the message that fundamental democratic rights should not be negotiable,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-California and ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Whether the EFCA eliminates secret-ballot elections is a matter of debate. Advocates say the bill lets employees choose whether to use a so-called card-check process or secret ballots to organize.

Opponents say that by instituting a union when a majority of cards have been collected, the bill would obviate any other method. Rep. John Kline, R-Minnesota and a co-sponsor of the secret-ballot bill, said that in order for a secret ballot to be used, there would have to be a parallel organizing campaign.

“I cannot imagine a scenario where [card check] does not come about,” Kline said.

But the secret-ballot bill would not allow card-check elections under any circumstances. Many companies, including AT&T, have allowed them voluntarily.

The bill was launched with 101 House co-sponsors and 15 Senate co-sponsors, all Republicans.

Despite being the top priority of organized labor, the EFCA has not yet been introduced. Unions rallied for the bill at a February 4 event on Capitol Hill.

At a similar time during the previous Congress, the bill had been introduced with 233 co-sponsors and approved by the House. It was stopped by a Senate filibuster.

In the new Congress, Democrats have substantially increased their majorities in the House and Senate. In addition, President Barack Obama was a co-sponsor of the legislation when he was a senator and promoted it during his presidential campaign.

Democratic leaders will introduce the bill “soon,” said Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the House Education and Labor Committee. “We will have the overwhelming support of the [Democratic] caucus and a few Republicans.”

Business and labor groups are locked in a fierce and expensive battle over the bill. Corporate advocates say that it will raise the cost of doing business in the midst of a recession.

Backers of the choice measure say that it will be an economic boon for workers. As more of them organize, they will gain leverage to increase pay and benefits.

The Economic Policy Institute on Wednesday, February 25, released a statement by 25 economists in support of the bill.

Frank Levy, a professor of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that although productivity has increased by 45 percent since 1990, an average 40-year-old man with a high school diploma has seen his wages stagnate. Someone with four years of college has earned an 18 percent wage increase.

“Even people with a bachelor’s degree are having trouble grabbing on to their fair share of labor productivity,” Levy said in a media conference sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute. “Unions are very weak, so that leaves the typical worker with weak bargaining power.”

But Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina and a co-sponsor of the secret-ballot bill, questions whether greater unionization ushered in by the choice measure would benefit workers.

“This is the American auto industry business model—to force people to join a union,” DeMint said. “We’ve seen how that worked.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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