Dolan Media Newswires
Portland, OR. — The so-called card-check bill that would make unionizing easier could pass Congress this year without the card-check provision. That bill, officially the Employee Free Choice Act, appeared dead earlier this year when U.S. Senate Democrats couldn’t get the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster.
Since then, bill opponent Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., has changed his stance to embrace a version of the bill that doesn’t include the card-check provision. Specter recently told the national AFL-CIO convention in his home state that senators have worked out a compromise that he predicted would pass before year end.
“As someone sitting in the audience, to me he came across as a strong supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act,” said Tom Chamberlain, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.
Even without the card-check provision, which would let workers form a union by signing cards indicating their support, there’s still plenty to like or dislike in the bill, depending on one’s viewpoint. Both sides agree that the debate turns on fear and intimidation, but they differ on who’s doing the intimidating.
“Even without card check, this is a bad bill that will make employers fearful enough to wonder if they want to be hiring or investing further in their business,” said John Killin, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors Pacific Northwest Chapter.
One provision in the bill would require an election within a short period, perhaps a week or two, after 30 percent of a company’s workers indicate support for a union. “You don’t necessarily see it coming,” Killin said. “You don’t have a chance to explain to employees the difference it will make.”
Supporters say that without a time limit, employers can put off elections for months while they bring in consultants to intimidate workers. “They have law firms that specialize in interfering with a worker’s right to choose (a union),” said Bob Shiprack, executive secretary of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council.
Although a compromise bill has yet to be introduced, national groups know they’ll be working in a delicate political climate. With lawmakers focused on health care reform, turning their attention to labor laws will be difficult, said Brian Worth, chairman of the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, which opposes the Employee Free Choice Act.
If the bill doesn’t pass by the end of 2009, it won’t come up again until the next Congress, Worth said. “Once you hit 2010, you’re not going to see this passed.”
The bill doesn’t become palatable without card check, Worth said, or even without another controversial provision requiring binding arbitration if unions and employers fail to reach a contract agreement. If senators drop those provisions to reach 60 votes, he said, the provisions could return as amendments or in a conference committee, where they need only a simple majority.
Some bill supporters are still publicly pushing the card-check provision despite its apparent political death earlier this year. “Sen. (Tom) Harkin, who is leading the negotiations, has said nothing is off the table yet,” said Josh Goldstein, spokesman for American Rights at Work. Card check, or “majority sign-up, is the best way for workers to form unions free of intimidation and coercion from their employer.”
In the construction industry, where workplaces often are loosely defined and temporary, union organizing can take different forms, Shiprack said. Union organizers try to convince individual contractors that a union is in their best interest.
“If they need a hiring hall, stable benefits and apprenticeship programs, it makes it easier if you’re a union contractor to get all those things,” he said.
The Employee Free Choice Act could have the biggest effect not on construction sites but for off-site trades such as glaziers and sheet metal workers. “In construction, we really don’t use that method of organizing,” Shiprack said. “It’s a mobile work force, except for people who work in shops.”
That doesn’t mean that job sites don’t see organizing drives, Killin said. “Sometimes on a job site, there’s just a couple journeymen there and you could chat them up without anyone knowing you were there,” he said.
“My concern is, of course, for the contractors, because there’s a major union presence in construction still, more so than most industries,” Killin said. “The work site is broader in construction, but in every business there’s a concern.”