By  on June 27, 2007

WASHINGTON — Republicans in the Senate on Tuesday blocked one of labor's top priorities, legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize workers.

A 51 to 48 procedural vote to cut off debate and move the bill fell short of the required 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, essentially killing the measure for the rest of the year.

The legislation, known as the Employee Free Choice Act, was a political litmus test. Despite the new Democratic majority in Congress, Senate Republicans had pledged to halt advance of the bill and President Bush said he would veto it.

The House passed the measure in March by a 241 to 185 vote. It would require employers to recognize a union if a majority of eligible employees sign authorization cards in what is known as the "card check" system. The National Labor Relations Board would certify the union without giving employers the option of a secret election. Under current law, employers have the right to request a secret-ballot election, overseen by the NLRB, before a union can be certified.

The bill also would strengthen penalties for employers who try to strong-arm workers seeking to organize by imposing fines of as much as $20,000 per violation.

The debate in the Senate revealed the sharp divisions between the parties. Republicans and employers have argued that the measure would lead to coercion and intimidation of employees who don't want to unionize. Democrats and the unions contend the reverse, saying the legislation would give workers more choices and change the status quo under which employers coerce and harass employees.

"The unions have identified the retail industry as a target of opportunity," said Rob Green, vice president for government and political affairs at the National Retail Federation. "This bill would make it infinitely easier within the retail environment" to organize employees.

Although retailers may have won the battle, they recognize the war isn't over. Organized labor is "looking to strengthen their supporters in Congress and they want to bring the bill back in early 2009, potentially with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate," and in control of the White House, Green said.

Katherine Lugar, senior vice president for government affairs at the mass merchant Retail Industry Leaders Association, said, "The so-called Employee Free Choice Act actually gives employees no choice — it deprives them of their First Amendment rights. The retail industry decries this obvious backdoor attempt to increase unionization at the cost of the employee right to a private ballot."AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a statement, "It is sad and shameful that Republican senators chose to block the road to the middle class for millions of workers by throwing up procedural barricades from their minority position in Congress. Theirs is a stunt that working men and women will remember when they go to the ballot boxes in 2008."

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