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A minor problem: Workers actually prefer secret ballot union elections

John McCain and Barack Obama differ on many things, but no difference is starker than on the one proposal that will rise or fall depending on who next occupies the White House.

Touted by organized labor and reviled by business, the Employee Free Choice Act is likely to be among the first pieces of legislation the new Congress will approve next year. Obama has pledged to sign the bill into law, while McCain has vowed to veto it as President George W. Bush promised to do earlier this year.

The measure would make it much easier to form unions at the workplace, and both sides of the debate agree it could add millions of workers to union rolls while boosting wages and benefits. Its passage would go a long way toward reviving the labor movement, while its defeat would be a victory for many businesses.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are already being spent on the measure, including TV ads by anti-union groups that depict union thugs using an actor from ''The Sopranos.''

Advocates, chiefly Democrats and unions, say it would restore workers' voices on the job and expand the middle class. St. Louis labor leaders anticipate being able to add to their rolls thousands of hotel and restaurant workers, nurses, gambling-boat employees and small-business workers.

''It's going to make all the difference in the world,'' said Bob Soutier, president of the St. Louis Labor Council, which represents 175,000 workers. ''I think the impact in St. Louis would be more than elsewhere because there's more exposure to unions.''

In Illinois, which has 1 million union members, the legislation could lead to 10,000 new members a year for the next five years, says Bob Bruno, director of labor education programs at the University of Illinois.

Opponents, mostly Republicans and business groups, counter that the act would raise prices, reduce employer flexibility and drive corporations overseas. Small companies would take an especially sharp hit, they say.

''It's one of the biggest threats to small business that we've seen in a long time,'' said Brad Jones, Missouri director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents 9,000 small firms in the state. ''If you're going to subject union salaries, union benefits and union dues on companies whose profit margins right now are absolutely razor thin, you're definitely going to put some of those guys out of business.''

McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, has promised to veto what he calls an ''abysmal" piece of legislation. Obama, his Democratic rival, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Opponents focus on a provision of the bill that would eliminate the requirement for a secret ballot when workers decide on whether to form a union. Instead, if more than half the workers at a job site signed cards asking for a union, they would have one.

''We must protect this right to ensure workers are able to privately cast their vote on whether or not to organize - free of intimidation and coercion from union representatives, employers and other employees,'' said McCain spokeswoman Wendy Riemann. ''This legislation is designed to facilitate union organization.''

Obama has said he believes the bill would ''make the process of organizing less vulnerable to employer lawbreaking ... I am convinced that millions of Americans would join a union if given a fair opportunity.''

Backers add that workers would still have the option of a secret ballot, while at present only employers have both options.

Last year, the House passed the bill, 241-185. The Senate also passed it, but by only a 51-48 margin, meaning the bill couldn't survive a filibuster, nor could supporters have overridden Bush's promised veto.

Labor leaders say that a pick-up of a few Senate seats by Democrats, combined with some legislative maneuvering on the bill, would mean everything will come down to who is president.


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