What You Need to Know About the Card-Check Bill

By Monica Ginsburg

Aug. 6, 2009

The Employee Free Choice Act, a priority for labor leaders, modifies the National Labor Relations Act to make it easier for unions to organize employees.

Much of the controversy surrounding the bill is the card-check provision, which would award certification to a union in any workplace where more than 50 percent of employees sign a card stating that they’re in favor. Now, unionization requires a vote by secret ballot, which can happen when more than 30 percent of workers sign cards.

The Employee Free Choice Act was introduced in March and referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor. President Barack Obama has voiced his support. Observers expect some form of the act to pass before Labor Day, but not before another point of debate—binding arbitration—is resolved.

Under current law, unions and employers are obliged to bargain in good faith over labor contracts. The bill, however, says that if management and a newly created union can’t agree to a first contract within 120 days, a federal arbitrator can impose a deal. That contract would be binding for two years.

Some labor law experts and small-business owners say it’s unrealistic to hammer out a contract in such a short time, especially with a third party who might not know the business. And some owners fear the act could force terms they can’t afford.

“Binding arbitration takes the onus off the union to be a serious negotiator,” says Butch Bingham, president of Bulkmatic Transport Co., a Griffith, Indiana, company that faced a union drive five years ago. “It’s almost impossible to get a contract signed so quickly. Then some independent person will be deciding my economic package and whether or not my company survives.”

The bill also raises the penalties for unfair labor practices during a unionization campaign, such as intimidating workers or firing organizers. Current law requires that illegally fired workers be given back pay; the Employee Free Choice Act mandates triple back pay and a $20,000 fine per violation.

The National Labor Relations Board, which certifies unions, has jurisdiction over private companies doing business across state lines and meeting certain minimum sales levels, generally $500,000 for retail and $50,000 for nonretail. That means certain restaurants, catering companies, motels, franchises, health care facilities and retailers may no longer be off-limits to unions.

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