Controversial, undemocratic card-check

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Labor makes push, but business groups look to check card-check legislation

Several groups attending the Republican National Convention this week have serious concerns about elections—but not the presidential kind. The groups are worried about the controversial card-check legislation pending in Congress. The proposal would give unions the ability to organize at a company simply by having workers sign a card, rather than voting in a secret ballot.

Many Republican leaders worry that a Barack Obama victory in November would lead to the passage of the bill, which is currently stalled in Congress. Mr. Obama supports the bill; his opponent, Republican John McCain, does not.

The card-check proposal stokes passions on both sides of the political divide. Unions say their organizing efforts are often hamstrung by aggressive anti-union efforts by companies, including worker intimidation. Corporations claim unions will use the card-check method to make employees offers they can’t refuse—and do it while off company premises.

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, said in an interview with Financial Week that business attacks against the bill have twisted reality, making the method seem undemocratic.

“It’s amazing that American corporations are now the defenders of democracy in the United States,” Mr. Stern said, “even though they are the supporters of communism in China.”

The Employee Free Choice Act passed the House in March 2007 by a margin of nearly sixty votes, but was later held up by a threatened filibuster in the Senate. Democrats failed to secure the 60 votes necessary to block the filibuster, but they did get Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to side with them in the 51-48 vote. Business groups now worry that if Democrats pick up several more seats in the Senate, they will have enough votes to pass the card-check legislation.

As it stands, groups like the National Association of Manufacturers—which staunchly opposes card-check certification—view the House as the best battleground to stymie the bill. And they say they are making inroads.

Some House Democrats “say they’ve seen the light,” said Jay Timmons, executive vice president at NAM. “There was some buyer’s remorse among some members.”

One concern, Mr. Timmons said, is that lawmakers might face a backlash from constituents if workers feel threatened by union members looking to corral votes outside of a secret election. “It’s simply undemocratic,” he said.

Mr. Stern disputes the assertion, saying “the House is very comfortable with what they passed, the candidates are very comfortable with what the bill says.”

One thing’s for sure: this election cycle is turning into a battle royal between business interests and unions.

At the SEIU’s Take Back Labor Day music festival Monday, hip hop artist Imani and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello spoke alongside Mr. Stern, urging concert goers to sign petitions supporting the card-check legislation.

Union officials at the festival also set up a giant banner calling for universal health care. The sign was clearly visible from the Xcel Energy Center, where the Republican convention is being held.

“Big labor is flexing its muscle,” Mr. Timmons said, noting the reported $50 million the AFL-CIO is said to be spending to get out the vote in November. He added that businesses eager to get workers to the polls are “hobbled” by election laws that bar companies from giving workers a day off to vote or busing employees to voting locations.

- Nicholas Rummell


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