Employee Free Choice Act On Life Support

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Reporting from Capitol Hill

Negotiations among Democrats on the Employee Free Choice Act are stalled in the Senate. The key Democrat in charge of negotiations admits they have been unable to find ways to move forward.

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin is the lead negotiator. He reluctantly conceded that negotiations have “been put on hold for an indefinite period of time.”

Harkin said that the absence of Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, both due to illness, is prohibiting the Democrats from reaching the sixty votes necessary to pass the legislation.

But the Democrats’ absence is not the only challenge. Moderate Democrats have not yet indicated their support. One of those wavering Democrats is Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson. He says he won’t support the legislation until he approves of the entire bill. He too admits the challenges of Democrats to reach a compromise.

“It would be advisable if we could bring both sides together to have something everyone can support, but it doesn’t look likely,” Nelson said.

The legislation that would make it easier for workers to form unions has been closely watched this year. Soon after President Barack Obama was elected and the Democrats increased their majority in the Senate and in the House, both unions and business groups have devoted money and time working on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

They have hired more than a hundred lobbyists for the issue, according to the lobbying disclosure website Opensecrets.org. Both unions and business have also sent members to talk to their representatives and enlisted campaigns of phone calls and petitions. For both business and unions alike, it’s the second most important issue behind health care.

The intense lobbying campaign, which has cost at least $10 million in 2009 according to Opensecrets.org, has been effective as Democrats are unwilling to bring the legislation to the floor unless passage is guaranteed.

The New York Times reported last week that a key provision of the legislation was dropped from the bill. It’s the majority sign-up provision, also known as “card check.” It would change the way workers could unionize, requiring a simple majority to sign a statement of support.

Business groups oppose card check because it makes it easier for workers to form a union. Workers would no longer have to attend an employer-sponsored formal meeting to fill out a ballot.

Even with out the so-called card check provisions, business groups are still dissatisfied. “The card check portion of the bill has been a red herring,” said Bret McMahon, Vice President of Business Development for the construction company Miller and Long. McMahon also said that the real problem of the bill is binding interest arbitration, which he calls a “huge intrusion.”

“It allows a third party to enter negotiations that are at an impasse and literally write the terms and negotiations that both parties are bound to agree to,” McMahon said.

The unions argue that the ball has been in the employers’ court for decades. The unions blame declining union membership on the workers’ restricted ability to unionize.

Greg Deniere of Change to Win, a federation of unions that split from the AFL-CIO in 2005, says that workers are often unable to reach that first contract with the employer which results in a “never-formed union.”

“We want a system where you have employees make the choice, they make the choice for the union, then they have a fair shot of arriving at an equitable contract,” Deniere says.

The unions also want tougher penalties for workplace intimidation and a five to ten day window for employers to organize their campaign against the union. Business groups oppose both measures.

For a radio version of this story, visit www.fsrn.org



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