Card-Check Bill: The Most Radical Change in Collective Bargaining in 75 Years

By Pete Winn | March 11, 2009 | 6:12 PM EDT

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), right, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), left, take part in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 10, 2009 to announce the introduction of the Employee Free Choice Act. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

( – The battle over the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is on – and Capitol Hill has become a battleground of union members and business owners arguing their respective cases to members of Congress. 

The bill, which is organized labor’s top priority, is about “righting economic wrongs,” according to its Senate sponsor, liberal Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

“In 2004, the average CEO made 431 times that of the average worker,” Harkin said at a Capitol Hill news conference unveiling the bill. “Concentrating so much wealth and power into the hands of the few is unsustainable.” 

On Tuesday, Harkin and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) formally introduced the legislation, popularly known as the “card-check” bill, in Congress. 

“We are introducing legislation that puts power back into the hands of the people who are truly the backbone of our country,” Harkin said. “We intend to pass this legislation not in a matter of years, but in weeks or months.”

Union proponents say they want EFCA because it will give employees in a company the right to form a union simply by signing union cards. 

"Right now, millions of working families are struggling -- losing their jobs, their health care and their retirement benefits. They're working harder than ever before, yet they're not able to share in the prosperity they helped create," said Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU.) 

Increased unionization virtually guarantees higher wages.
"To really fix this economy, we must rebuild the middle class. The solution is simple: create good jobs that support a family, so they buy more products and put money back into our economy. That's what the Employee Free Choice Act will do," Burger added.
Opponents, however, say the card check bill would do two things that labor laws have never done – both of which, they say, are undemocratic. 

“This legislation does away with a bedrock in our democracy -- the secret ballot -- exposing workers to intimidation and coercion,” said Katie Packer, executive director of Workforce Fairness Institute.

The bill would force all newly formed unions and management to come up with a contract within 120 days of a bargaining unit’s certification – and impose mandatory arbitration if they fail to reach a pact in that time period.

“It places the federal government squarely in the middle of the workplace by having government arbitrators impose contract terms on small businesses,” Packer said. 

“Both these provisions would devastate our economy and result in the loss of millions of jobs during a recession that has already produced historic losses in both employment and capital.”
Currently, mandatory binding arbitration is only required in public sector jobs, like police and firefighters, where strikes are not allowed by law.
Taking a Page from History
Seldom has one piece of legislation so polarized America’s economic engine – or proposed to alter collective bargaining laws so thoroughly.
The last time was during the Great Depression, according to Harkin. In fact, with EFCA, sponsors are consciously “taking a page” out of history, he added. 
“It was in 1935, the height of the Great Depression that Congress and President Roosevelt passed the Wagner Act, otherwise known as the National Labor Relations Act, that put an end to the unbalanced setting where employers have all the cards and the workers don’t have none (sic),” Harkin said.  

But Glenn Spencer, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told that a lot of things have changed since 1935 – and today’s card-check bill would effectively take the teeth out of whatever safeguards the National Labor Relations Act does have.
“Under the current method, where even after you sign a card and say, ‘Yes, I’d like to have an election,’ you still get to vote, when you are fully aware of what’s going on and what it is you are voting for.
“Under this newly proposed process, once you sign that card, it’s over – that was your vote. There is no secret ballot election. It prevents workers, in all cases, of having full knowledge of what it is they’re signing.”

Miller, the House sponsor of the bill, meanwhile, disagreed. 

 “Free Choice does not put an end to the National Labor RelationsAct voting process, it merely allows for workers to decide which one they want,”  Miller said.  

Though unions are expected to target large non-union companies like Wal-Mart for unionization at first, Spencer said small businesses would also feel the impact if card check is passed.

“Today, most small businesses aren’t a target of union organizing, because the cost-benefit proposition just really isn’t there for the unions – they would have to spend time and energy trying to organize these workers, and the payoff benefit from dues just really isn’t there,” Spencer said.
“But with this bill, because it makes it so much cheaper and faster for unions to organize, it really takes small businesses and puts them in the crosshairs. I think you would see a substantial increase in unionization activity at small employers, if  this becomes law.” 

The card-check bill, meanwhile, will be filibustered – or blocked – in the Senate, unless sponsors have lined up the 60 votes needed to “invoke cloture” – or stop the filibuster. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) admitted Tuesday that he doesn’t yet have 60 votes to invoke cloture. 

“I think getting 60 votes on the procedural aspects of it, I think, is certainly doable. And then we’ll look and see if we can get enough votes to pass it,” Reid said. 

Like this story? Then sign up to receive our free daily E-Brief newsletter.