WASHINGTON — The House passed a bill Thursday that would make it easier for unions to organize workers, but President Bush has said he would veto the legislation, bolstering the position of retailers opposed to it.

The legislation, known as the Employee Free Choice Act, is a top priority for organized labor and a test of its influence with the new Democratic majority in Congress. However, the measure’s prospects for Senate approval are unclear, and supporters need 60 votes to overcome a likely filibuster by Republicans. The bill, which passed 241 to 185, appears even less likely to get the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a presidential veto.

The bill would mandate the recognition of a union if a majority of employees sign authorization cards, known as the “card check” system. It would instruct the National Labor Relations Board to certify the union without giving employers the option of a secret election. Under current law, employers have the right to request a closed-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 civil fines of as much as $20,000 per violation.

The sharply divided debate in the House signaled the likely troubles ahead for the legislation.

“This bill pushes both sides to the bargaining table in good faith and that’s really where we should be going,” said Rep. Betty Sutton (D., Ohio).

But Rep. Pete Sessions (R., Tex.) countered, “This legislation is not about providing fairness or improving working conditions. It is about shielding unions from competition and stacking the deck in favor of union bosses at the expense of workers.”

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has called the current system “broken,” contending it allows employers to coerce and intimidate workers into rejecting unions.

“The reason for the decline in union membership is not that workers don’t want a union,” Sweeney told reporters on Tuesday. “The reason most of these people don’t have a union is because they can’t have a union.”

The White House released a statement saying, “It is a fundamental tenet of democracy that individuals are able to vote their conscience, privately, free from threat of reprisal. Substituting a ‘card check’ mechanism for private ballots would turn back the clock 60 years and return us to a failed system.”

This story first appeared in the March 2, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Retailers and other businesses are concerned the legislation would ease the way for unions to organize workers. The National Retail Federation, American Apparel & Footwear Association and Retail Industry Leaders Association have joined the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, put together to lobby against the bill.

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