Harmonizing U.S. labor law with Europe

Unions would kick back gains to Dem pols

The election of Democrat Barack Obama as president could bring the most sweeping changes in labor law in decades, reversing a long-standing erosion of the power of private-sector unions.

The changes could include measures to make it easier for workers to join unions, an expansion of family and medical leave rights and more enforcement of worker safety laws.

Business advocates in the Lower Hudson Valley say the changes would saddle employers, particularly small companies, with burdensome costs and thwart job creation. But union leaders in the region say changes Obama supports would lift wages, protect their health benefits and provide them with more job security.

There's good reason for unions to be concerned about their diminishing role in the relationship between American companies and their workers. In 2007, union members accounted for 12.1 percent of wage and salary workers in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was down from 20.1 percent in 1983. Only 7.5 percent of private-sector employees belonged to unions last year.

Union leaders, who sent armies of members to battleground states to work for Obama's election, are pledging to take advantage of the opportunities they think a labor-friendly administration will present.

"I see the CWA (Communications Workers of America) becoming more aggressive, along with organized labor all over the country," said Joseph Barca, president of CWA Local 1103 in Port Chester. "We are going to expand union membership. We are going to regain the middle class in this country."

The centerpiece of Obama's labor initiatives is the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposed law that would let workers organize a union through a process known as "card check." A majority of the workers in the proposed bargaining unit would sign cards indicating they want to join.

Under current law, it's much harder for workers to join a union. Thirty percent of the workers must express an interest in joining the union. That triggers a secret-ballot election in which a majority of the workers must vote in favor of the union.

But it is customary for management to try to dissuade workers from voting for the union. That's the part of the process that organized labor does not like.

"The company has 45 days to have those work-site meetings," said Barca, whose local represents Verizon Communications Inc. workers in Westchester and Putnam counties. "And I can tell you what happens in those meetings. The prospective union members are threatened with, 'If you pick a union, we're going to move your job overseas.'"

Paul Galligan, a partner in the New York office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP who represents management in labor matters, said the part of the proposed law that's most objectionable to management is contract arbitration.

Once a union became certified, the sides would have 90 days to negotiate a contract. If they did not, they would go to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which would appoint an arbitrator who could impose a settlement, he said.

It's a huge power shift from current labor law, which lets management impose a settlement on a union if good-faith negotiations reach an impasse.

"I think that's what scares a lot of businesses," Galligan said. "They no longer have the right to dictate the contract."

Mike Fishman, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ in New York, said union membership in other countries has increased by up to 30 percent after the enactment of similar laws.

And that's an economic stimulus because workers generally earn higher wages once they join a union, meaning they have more money to spend on goods and services in their communities, Fishman said.

"We see it as an anti-poverty program," he said. "And it doesn't cost the government anything."

Business advocates have a different view of the possible change.

Al Samuels, president and chief executive of the Rockland Business Association, said he thinks employers throughout the region could be taken by surprise by quick organizing efforts.

A pair of employees at a nine-person company could have a chat in which they agree they want to unionize. They could recruit three colleagues to sign cards and the union would be formed, he said.

"They could do this over the weekend at their homes, and the company never has a chance to know the drive is going on or to present its side of the issue," he said. "On Monday, the company would have to start deducting union dues from the paychecks."

Since small companies generally do not have the expertise to negotiate a contract on their own, they would have to hire lawyers or other professionals at a significant expense, Samuels said.

"He (Obama) has pledged to sign the Employee Free Choice Act when it comes to his desk, and I think it's a damaging, damaging piece of legislation - not just for business, for the entire economy," Samuels said.

Obama's campaign Web site says he is a "strong advocate" of the law and thinks "workers should have the freedom to choose whether to join a union without harassment or intimidation."

The House of Representatives passed a version of the act last year but it was killed by a Senate filibuster. Democrats have gained six seats in Tuesday's election and need to win the remaining three that are still contested to reach 60 seats, the number needed to stop a filibuster.

Barca acknowledged that without 60 seats, a Republican-led filibuster could stop a new law. But he said he hopes that a labor-friendly president will be able to rally support for the bill.

John Maraia Sr., president of the Building Trades Council in New City, said he thinks Obama will reverse the Bush administration's opposition to project labor agreements for federal building projects.

A project labor agreement requires contractors, even those that are non-unionized, to agree to pay union wages and other benefits in order to get a contract. Opponents of the agreements contend they drive up the costs of projects.

But Rockland tradesmen have benefited from project labor agreements on public and private projects, including the construction of the Palisades Center in West Nyack, Maraia said.

"It put people on that job who were out of work in this area," he said. "Project labor agreements level the playing field and put people to work who live in the community."

Maraia said he also expects the Obama administration to increase funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration so that the agency will be able to conduct more workplace inspections.

Obama is also a Senate co-sponsor of legislation to overturn National Labor Relations Board decisions that let employers classify certain employees as supervisors, making it much harder for those employees to be union members.

Family leave laws also could become more generous. Obama has supported allowing parents up to 24 hours of leave a year to participate in their children's academic activities and letting workers take time off to address domestic violence.

He pledged to encourage states to enact paid-leave laws, saying he would provide a $1.5 billion fund to help offset the costs for workers and employers.


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