WASHINGTON — Labor groups launched a major grassroots initiative on Monday to build support in Congress for the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize a union, as lawmakers prepared to introduce the contentious legislation.

This story first appeared in the March 10, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

 Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.) plan to reintroduce the legislation, perhaps as early as today, according to House Republicans, who vigorously oppose the measure.

The legislation stalled in the Senate in 2007, but labor groups are optimistic the bill will pass the Democratic-controlled Congress and be signed by President Obama, who has pledged his support but has indicated there could be room for compromise.

The bill would allow a majority of workers who sign a card in support of a union to automatically certify it and would stiffen penalties against employers that illegally fire or discriminate against workers for union organizing, essentially replacing closed-ballot elections. The bill would also require binding arbitration should employers and employees fail to reach a contract agreement within 90 days. A federal arbitrator would then establish a two-year contract.

Unions feel the new method is needed because the closed-ballot elections are often held up by legal challenges and can be subject to management intimidation, while businesses feel the workers will be subject to peer pressure in a card-check system and are against submitting contracts to binding arbitration.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, chaired by Kennedy, is slated to hold a hearing today called “Rebuilding Economic Security: Empowering Workers to Restore the Middle Class.”

“Unions have been responsible for almost every major improvement in the standard of living in this country’s history, from the 40-hour workweek to the minimum wage to the Family Medical Leave Act to health insurance, pensions…the Equal Pay Act and Social Security,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), in announcing the hearing.

Several union organizations and hundreds of workers kicked off a campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act on Monday and planned to hold over 100 grassroots events across the country this week, according to the AFL-CIO.

Underscoring the deep divisions between organized labor and the business community over the bill, billionaire Warren Buffet said Monday that the legislation is a “mistake.”

“I think the secret ballot’s pretty important in the country,” Buffet said on MSNBC. “I’m against card check [the legislation] to make a perfectly flat statement.”

Berkshire Hathaway Inc., controlled by Buffet, owns Fruit of the Loom, Russell Corp., Vanity Fair Brands Inc. and Borsheim’s Jewelry.

Buffet said he “understands” the reasons for unionization and “by and large, I think certainly the people that are in unions have not been well treated by the tax code that we’ve had over time, but I think card check is a mistake.”