By  on January 12, 2009

WASHINGTON — Organized labor was in the spotlight Friday on Capitol Hill as a Senate panel considered the nomination of a pro-labor advocate for Secretary of Labor and the House passed two bills addressing pay discrimination.

Labor’s top legislative priority — a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize a union — was a central focus of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions’ confirmation hearing of Rep. Hilda Solis (D., Calif.) as Labor Secretary. The full Senate must vote to confirm Solis, who would be the first Latina in the post.

In a separate action, the House passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would reverse a Supreme Court decision and allow employees to sue as long as they filed a lawsuit within 180 days of any paycheck deemed discriminatory. The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in a case involving Ledbetter, a former Goodyear Tire & Co. employee, that alleged victims of wage discrimination must file a complaint within 180 days of their first paycheck or lose the right to sue. As a result, Ledbetter lost significant money awarded to her by a lower court for pay discrimination over more than 20 years at Goodyear.

The House also approved the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill designed to close loopholes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act by clarifying that victims of gender-based discrimination can sue for compensatory and punitive damages. It also bars employers from retaliating against workers who share salary information with co-workers and requires employers to prove that any wage disparities are job-related and not gender-based.

At her confirmation hearing, Republican senators pressed Solis on support of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that has deeply divided lawmakers. Under the bill, if a majority of workers in a workplace sign cards authorizing a union, they would be allowed to be organized. The majority sign-up process is permitted under current law, but only if the employer allows it. Many employers require employees to undergo secret-ballot elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board.

“Labor advocates claim the Employee Free Choice Act is necessary because…employees who support a union cannot get a fair election,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah). “Because employers are engaged in unlawful activities during union election campaigns, they say unions are losing elections.”

But Hatch pointed to an NLRB study that showed 60 percent of all contested union elections in 2007 were won by unions, saying those numbers undermined advocates’ arguments for the legislation. Solis acknowledged she was a co-sponsor of the legislation in the House but declined to comment on the bill, saying she had not discussed it with President-elect Barack Obama, who cosponsored the bill in the Senate.

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