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Labor Stages Push for Employee Free Choice Act

Thousands of workers march to Capitol Hill to deliver petition with 1.5 million signatures.

WASHINGTON — Thousands of workers plan to march to Capitol Hill today to deliver 1.5 million signatures in support of a controversial bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, that would make it easier for workers to form a union.

This story first appeared in the February 4, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The bill pits organized labor against the business community and is shaping up to become one of the most defining battles in the early days of President Obama’s administration. Workers plan to tell their personal stories about the difficulties associated with organizing drives under the current law, and make the pitch for the legislation at a news conference, followed by the delivery of the signatures.

Under the bill, if a majority of employees in a workplace sign cards authorizing a union, they would be unionized. The majority sign-up process is permitted under current law, but only if employers allow it. Many companies require workers to undergo a secret-ballot election administered by the National Labor Relations Board.

An AFL-CIO spokeswoman said this creates “a corporate imbalance where corporations hold all of the power and workers are left in the dust.” She said the bill will “allow workers the choice on how to form unions in the workplace,” instead of employers.

The bill also stiffens penalties against firms that illegally fire or discriminate against workers for union activity during an organizing or contract drive, and allows employers and newly formed unions to refer bargaining to mediation, and, if necessary, binding arbitration if they are unable to agree on a first contract after 90 days.

Obama, who cosponsored the bill in the Senate and has acknowledged how contentious it is, recently told the Washington Post’s editorial board that he would be open to a compromise.

The business community is largely opposed to the bill because it takes away management’s chance to argue why unionizing a store or distribution center is not necessary and abolishes closed ballot elections. Business executives are also opposed to the provision that gives control of a contract to a third-party arbitrator.

Labor leaders say the act will give workers more power to choose and organize unions and ultimately improve wages and benefits. For too long, they argue, management has threatened and intimidated workers during long union-organizing campaigns.