Saturday, November 29, 2008

Showdown Looms Over 'Card Check' Union Drives

The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON -- While Washington debates how much unions are to blame for Detroit auto makers' woes, a broader face-off is brewing between labor and employers.

The stakes in the struggle went up Tuesday, as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it will spend about $10 million in the coming months to fight legislation that would allow workers to organize without a secret ballot vote. Such "card check" organization drives are a top priority of union leaders, who want President-elect Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress to enact legislation easing union-organizing rules.

Randel Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the Chamber, said defeating the measure was the lobby group's top priority in the coming session of Congress, and he described the coming fight in Congress over the issue as a "firestorm bordering on Armageddon."

Mr. Johnson also took aim at the United Auto Workers, saying the union must accept cuts to health-care and pension benefits if the unionized Detroit auto makers are to win a federal bailout.

"There's no secret about the entitlement-cost overhead the auto makers are sustaining," Mr. Johnson said. "It's got to be looked at if they're going to survive."

The auto-industry bailout, card check and other items on labor's agenda cut to a signature Obama issue: how to produce more gains for middle-class Americans, whose wages have largely stagnated during the past decade. The coming debate of worker-employer issues also will turn on questions about whether companies can be adaptable enough to compete in a global economy if they also have strong unions.

Union leaders say giving workers more power through collective bargaining and labor-friendly federal rules is critical to Mr. Obama's effort to boost the economy by raising living standards for the middle class.

Union membership dropped to 12% of the labor force last year from 20% in 1983, the earliest year that the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses for its comparisons.

"We're looking to restore the law the way it was in 1935," Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern said in a recent meeting with reporters, referring to the current card-check debate. Mr. Stern says employers want to keep their power, but giving workers an easier path to organizing will help the economy by creating a more equitable distribution of wealth. Mr. Stern points out that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has attributed some wealth inequality to lower rates of unionization.

Employers, led in Washington by the Chamber, counter that returning to New Deal-era unionism will make the U.S. less competitive, and they point to the travails of Detroit's unionized auto makers. But James Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin, said "unionization and competitiveness are not incompatible." He cited the aerospace and oil industries as examples where the two coexist. "You can't say the decline of the auto industry is due to the strength of the UAW," he added.

Many Republicans in Congress have expressed opposition to both the proposed Detroit bailout and the Employee Free Choice Act, which is how the card-check measure is officially known.

"There are a lot of legacy issues, some of which management has created, some of which labor has created," said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), referring to the troubled auto companies. "Going ahead there's going to be this balance-of-power issue" between unions and managements in the U.S. "One of the most destructive things I think could happen between labor and management ahead is this card-check issue."

After Congress decides on the Detroit bailout and the card-check proposal, unions have more measures they will press to get passed.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2007, approved by the House but blocked in the Senate, would effectively eliminate the statute of limitations on pay-discrimination lawsuits, making it easier for workers to sue their employers over unequal pay. The proposal is named for a woman whose suit for back pay was denied because the courts ruled she had waited too long to file her claim.

The Healthy Families Act would improve paid sick leave for union workers. The Respect Act -- Respect is an acronym for Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Tradeworkers -- would sharply limit which workers are classified as supervisors, a boon to unions, which now can't organize supervisors under federal law.

Some in union circles talk of trying to reverse the Right to Work laws that are enforced in 22 states, which forbid unions and employers to make union membership or dues a condition of employment.

Unions also will play a big role in debates over health care and trade agreements.

Employers are waiting to see just how supportive of unions Mr. Obama and the Democrats will be, while sending a message that the president-elect will need business backing to succeed.

"We understand that we're in a congressional environment right now that's going to be difficult for us. It's not just the unions being emboldened, but it's also the Democrats," said Marc Freedman, director of labor-law policy for the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, which represents more than three million businesses and organizations.

If Mr. Obama, who has said he favors card check, pushes it through Congress and quickly signs it in office, "it will dramatically undermine the Obama administration having any kind of cooperative relationship with the employer community," he said.

—Corey Boles contributed to this article.

Write to Melanie Trottman at

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