Alternatives Abound As EFCA Loses Steam

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Washington, DC—The Employee Free Choice Act – popularly known as the “card check” bill, since it would allow workers to unionize by signing pro-union cards, instead of having to hold a secret-ballot election – is losing momentum in today’s politically divisive climate.

Last week, EFCA suffered two setbacks. Sen. Arlen Specter withdrew his support for the bill, and three major U.S.retailers, Whole Foods, Starbucks and Costco, proposed an alternative approach that may tempt some conservative Democrats to vote against the existing proposal.

The companies’ alternative leaves out card check as well as mandatory arbitration, but would enact fixed election dates, thereby giving employers less time to put pressure on employees, and improves the ability of unions to contact and communicate with workers.

Specter announced his support for a list of reforms, including tougher penalties against employers with illegal firing practices, increased bargaining, and a requirement that elections be held within three weeks of organizers’ requests for one.

Unions are opposed to any restructuring of the bill – some claim that employers’ influence in the workplace is too great, and that no reform short of card-check will be effective. Pro-labor organizers and business leaders alike admit that labor law reform is overdue. The last major overhaul was the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.

Supporters of the Employee Free Choice Act are scrambling to avoid a filibuster, but Specter’s reversal leaves them short of the 60 votes necessary to pass the measure. Union leaders hope to amend the bill in committee, without radically changing its fundamental principals, in order to gain senators’ support.

The issue goes beyond the ordinary scope of labor relations, however. With the faltering economy, anti-corporate sentiment, and increased calls for equality in income distribution, the approach that the Obama administration and congressional leaders take toward the union question has wider repercussions. Indeed, experts warn that this bill could be instrumental in shaping the post-recession financial climate, as well as having a profound effect on the Obama presidency.

Joel Rogers, a pro-labor law professor at the University of Wisconsin, says that “the problem is not card check, it’s the fear that workers have,” and urges lawmakers to look at additional ways to reduce the intimidation factor. Stiff penalties are one way to keep employers in check.

Unions win more than half the elections held at workplaces, but union membership is down to less than 8%, down from over 30% in the 1950s.

 

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