Democrats Give Unions a Leg-Up in the Workplace

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - Labor Secretary Elaine Chao called it a "sad day for our country" after the House of Representatives "deprived workers of their basic right" to vote privately on whether they want to join a union or not.

But labor unions love the bill that the House passed on Thursday. The AFL-CIO called it the "most important labor law reform in 70 years."

The union-friendly bill, which passed by a veto-proof margin of 241-185, would replace the current secret-ballot system with a "card check" process, making it easier to form unions in the workplace.

Introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 800) would allow a majority of workers to form a union by simply signing a card or petition to that effect.

"It's simply about establishing fairness in the workplace," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md) on Thursday.

But House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) was quoted as saying that Democrats were more concerned with "taking care of union bosses."

House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) said the bill shows the "basic differences" between House Republicans and House Democrats: "Our side stands shoulder-to-shoulder with working men and women of this country who believe in the sanctity and importance of secret ballot elections.

"Democrats apparently stand with a different group -- one that has decided that basic principles of democracy need not be applied to the very serious, and very personal, question of whether to join a union," Blunt said.

"A vote in support of H.R. 800 was a vote to abolish workers' right to a secret ballot vote, and suspend basic guarantees of democracy in union elections," he added.

Business groups also oppose the bill.

Coercion and intimidation

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, expressing "extreme disappointment and concern," said the vote sends a disturbing message that the right to cast a ballot in private is not protected in the halls of Congress.

"We call on the Senate to uphold the right of workers to vote in private -- free of coercion or influence -- on whether or not to join a union," said Tom Donohue, Chamber president and CEO.

The Chamber noted that the card check process would force employees to make their yes or no choices in front of union organizers and fellow employees who support unionization, leaving them vulnerable to threats and other pressure tactics.

"The business community is mobilized around a single message -- you cannot trample on individuals' rights to privacy and their freedom to choose," said Donohue. He said lawmakers who decided to "take away basic voting rights" will be remembered on Election Day.

A group called The Center for Union Fact (CUF) warned that the bill will give labor unions a green light to "subject millions of American employees to coercion and intimidation."

"Legal recognition of a union has traditionally been achieved through secret ballot elections, just like a person votes for the president or a congressman," CUF noted. But the bill passed on Thursday allows union organizers to collect signatures "in face-to-face, one-on-one situations," leaving employees open to intimidation and fraud.

"In cheering the House's vote to end voting, union officials have a great sense of irony but no sense of shame," said Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts. "Their goal is no joke: labor bosses want to end workplace democracy."

Berman expressed the hope that senators would be "better at remembering the value of democracy."

'Ticket into middle class'

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said passage of the bill marks a "momentous turning point in the growing movement to restore our nation's middle class."

According to Sweeney, "the future looks a little brighter to all Americans who have watched corporations celebrate record profits, but have themselves been shut out of the party, left with stagnant wages and facing soaring costs. A union card is the single best ticket into the middle-class and, thanks to the Employee Free Choice Act, working people may finally have the chance to be part of a union."

Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen praised Congress for recognizing the importance of collective bargaining.

He also criticized House Republicans for trying to add a provision that only U.S. citizens be allowed to sign union authorization cards.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the bill will help make the economy fairer to "America's working families."

"The right to organize means a better future for them, and for all us. It means a future that is economically and socially just, a future where the workplace is safe, a future where our retirement is secure," Pelosi said.

Thirteen Republicans joined 228 Democrats in voting for the bill. Two Democrats and 183 Republicans voted against the bill.

The two Democrats voting no were Reps. Gene Taylor of Mississippi and Dan Boren of Oklahoma. "Tough, but gutsy votes," said the National Association of Manufacturers.

President Bush is expected to veto the bill if it passes the Senate. Sen. Ted Kennedy was quoted as saying that he would introduce the Senate bill soon.

See Earlier Stories:
Unions Seek Gov't Help to Boost Record Low Membership (7 Feb. 2007)
Union, Democrat Bill Would Give Workers 'Free Choice' (7 Sept. 2006)
AFL-CIO Seeks New Members From 'Working America' (29 Aug. 2003)

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