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WASHINGTON — Labor groups and the business community are preparing to square off over a bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize.
The anticipated legislation has become a flash point between organized labor and retail and apparel companies and could lead to a divisive debate in the early days of President-elect Barack Obama’s administration when Congress begins its new session in early January.
A broad-based group of business organizations, working under the moniker the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, recently sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to oppose the proposed legislation. Meanwhile, union groups have ramped up their lobbying efforts to include the bill in a multibillion-dollar economic stimulus package that is in the works.
Obama, who will be sworn into office on Jan. 20, cosponsored the legislation, known as the Employee Free Choice Act, and pledged on the campaign trail to make the bill a priority. Congressional Democrats are gearing up to revive the legislation, which has languished in Congress under a Republican president who threatened to veto it.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) told reporters during the lame-duck session of Congress last month that the bill would be on the top of the legislative list when Congress returns on Jan. 6.
Under the bill, if a majority of workers in a workplace sign cards authorizing a union, the workers would get a union. The majority sign-up process is permitted under current law, but only if the employer allows it. Many employers require employees to undergo an election process, known as a secret ballot election, administered by the National Labor Relations Board.
Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, has argued that NLRB elections are “stacked heavily against pro-union workers.”
The bill stiffens penalties against employers that illegally fire or discriminate against workers for their 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 not able to agree on a first contract after 90 days of bargaining.
“The Employee Free Choice Act is high up on our agenda,” said Hoyer. “We believe very strongly that employees have not only the right to organize and bargain collectively for pay, benefits and working conditions, but that our economy is better off when that happens. We also believe it has been very difficult for employees to get elections. There have been great delays and no enforcement by the NLRB against unfair labor practices.”
Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE, said he expects Obama to quickly send an economic stimulus package to the Hill and include it in the Employee Free Choice Act.
“It [the legislation] will allow several million American workers to go to the bargaining table with employers and arrive at a reasonable compromise,” said Raynor.
UNITE HERE represents some 450,000 apparel and textile manufacturing, retail and distribution workers, hotel and gaming industry employees, laundry workers and food service employees. Union membership has declined sharply in recent years, said Raynor, noting that unions only represent 7.5 percent of the private sector workforce. He said retail and manufacturing sectors would be among the main targets for unionizing and added that several labor groups are discussing working together to organize geographically, either entire cities or industries in particular cities.
The push by organized labor has put industry on the defensive.
“It is a landscape changer for our industry, there is no question about it,” said Katherine Lugar, executive vice president of public affairs for the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “We think, certainly, if members of Congress want to have a discussion about bad actors and about specific labor law reforms, we are happy to have a constructive dialogue.”
In its letter to lawmakers, the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, which includes RILA, the American Apparel & Footwear Association and the National Retail Federation, called the legislation a “dramatic assault on the rights of employees and employers that threatens to severely undermine any chance at a constructive dialogue on labor law reforms.”
The coalition contends two provisions in the bill “represent egregious attempts to limit the rights of employees and employers, and will severely diminish the ability of U.S. business to succeed in a globally competitive market.”
They point out the bill would effectively eliminate secret ballot voting and mandate that a union be recognized by a simple majority of signed authorization cards. The group also argues the bill would establish two-year binding contracts set by a federal arbitrator without a vote by employees.