Changing the rules to automate unionism

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Expert: Dems may have to compromise on secret ballots

Organized labor spent more than $100 million in support of Barack Obama and Democratic congressional candidates. It might not have been enough to deliver unions' top legislative priority.

Democrats are short of the 60 Senate votes they need to overcome attempts to stall legislation. That doesn't bode well for a measure to require that companies recognize unions once a majority of their workers sign cards requesting a union rather than only after employees vote. Without the 60 votes, the bill may be in trouble.

"The bill will likely be subject to a filibuster,'' said Robert Lian, a labor lawyer in the Washington office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. To pass the measure, Democrats will have to compromise, he said.

Related video: "Employee Forced Choice Act"

Obama as an Illinois senator co-sponsored the legislation and pledged on his campaign Web site to fight for its passage as president and to sign it into law.

AFL-CIO Treasurer Richard Trumka said he expected Obama to push the so-called card-check legislation during his first 100 days in office.

"What's good for the American working class is going to be at the front of the policy discussion, not at the end,'' said Trumka, whose labor federation is the largest in the U.S. with 10.5 million members.

Six Seats

Democrats gained six Senate seats in the Nov. 4 elections with three other races undecided. Republicans lead in the races in Alaska and Minnesota and the Georgia race will go to a runoff. If the Democrats fail to win any of those races, they will have majority control with 57 seats, including two independents who back the caucus.

Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to overcome objections to legislation, so Democrats would need the help of Republicans to pass the union measure.

Former House Minority Whip David Bonior, a Michigan Democrat who now heads the Washington-based labor advocacy group American Rights at Work, said Senate Democrats also may try to attach the provision to legislation, such as budget measures, that aren't subject to filibuster and need only simple majority to pass.

Union members will contact their senators and urge them to vote for the bill, said Tom Woodruff, Change to Win's director of strategic organizing for Change to Win, a rival federation representing about 6 million workers.

Arrayed on the other side are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobby; the National Federation of Independent Business; and the National Association of Manufacturers. The coalition will contact lawmakers in their districts to make the case that the card-check measure would raise costs for businesses and hinder the economic recovery.

'Serious Implications'

It "would have serious implications on the creation of jobs and on the stability of the economy,'' Chamber President Tom Donohue said. The chamber spent $35 million in the election.

The battle mirrors organized labor's drive to help elect Obama Nov. 4 and expand the Democratic majorities in Congress.

"Election Day is only an opportunity to make things happen,'' said Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and director of Change to Win. "We do need to stay on the ground.''

Labor spent $58 million in campaign contributions, 91 percent going to Democrats. Unions also laid out $44 million in independent expenditures supporting Obama, almost as much as the $53 million the Republican National Committee spent against the Democratic nominee, Federal Election Commission reports show.

More than 450,000 union members knocked on doors or made phone calls during the election campaign.

Try to Organize

Union officials say that employees who try to organize are fired, companies force workers to attend anti-union meetings, and penalties for violating the right to organize are too weak.

"With Obama's direction from the White House, this issue will be front and center very early on,'' said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Business leaders say the legislation will take away the workers' right to a secret ballot.

"This is the biggest labor fight of a generation in Washington,'' said David French, vice president of government relations for the International Franchise Association, part of the business-funded Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, which opposes the legislation. "This battle is not about fixing ills in labor law; this battle is about changing the rules so unions always win.''

Failed Bill

The U.S. House passed the measure in 2007 only to have it die in the Senate when supporters couldn't muster the 60 votes to bring it to the floor.

Business groups focused this year on re-electing enough Republicans to prevent Democrats from reaching 60 seats.

Change to Win's Burger said Republicans, having lost six Senate seats, may decide not to block a vote on the measure.

"The sitting senators can look around and see what happened,'' Burger said.

Union leaders point out that the legislation was the subject of business-financed ads and mailings in Senate races in Colorado, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Oregon, where the Democratic candidates won on Nov. 4, ousting three Republican incumbents in the process.

"They made this a major issue in their campaign and obviously they lost even though they spent tremendous amounts of money,'' McEntee said.

The unions now are counting on Obama, 47, to push for the legislation.

"Unlike in the past, instead of saying 'OK, we've elected you, now do what's right by us,' we are going to keep our machinery in place,'' Trumka said. "We are going to make sure that our interests are considered at the front of the parade.''


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