(CNSNews.com) – The union-sponsored Employee Free Choice Act -- or card check bill -- isn’t the steamroller on Capitol Hill that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and other union leaders hoped for last year when they announced the legislation would be the cornerstone their political agenda.
A major blow came Tuesday when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said that he will oppose efforts to get the measure passed in the Senate.
“The problems of the recession make this a particularly bad time to enact Employee Free Choice legislation,” Specter said in a speech on the Senate floor.
“Employers understandably complain that adding a burden would result in further job losses,” the liberal Republican noted.
Specter was the lone Republican in the Senate to support the card-check bill two years ago, the last time it was in Congress. Unions had been counting on his support when the measure is taken up later this summer.
The House is poised to pass the bill, and there is Democratic support in the Senate, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has acknowledged that he does not have the 60 votes needed to stop an expected filibuster of the bill.
“With the prospects of a Democratic win in Minnesota yet uncertain, it appears that 59 Democrats will vote to proceed with 40 Republicans in opposition,” Specter said. “If so, the decisive vote would be mine.”
“This announcement should end the rumor mill that I have made some deal for my political advantage.” Specter said. “I have not traded my vote in the past and I would not do so now.”
The Pennsylvanian’s announcement seemed to be a major blow to organized labor's efforts to pass the Employee Free Choice Act this year.
Mary Beth Maxwell, executive director of the pro-union American Rights at Work, said Specter had been an original co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act in 2005.
“He has continually acknowledged the need for practical solutions to the huge barriers workers in our country face when trying to form unions. His statement today opposing an up or down vote and real discussion is inconsistent with his own record of support for working people,” Maxwell added.
Specter’s decision earned applause from some of the bill’s opponents – but not all.
“Today, Senator Arlen Specter stood up for the working men and women in Pennsylvania and their right to a secret ballot in union organizing elections and contract decisions,” said Katie Packer, executive director of the Workforce Fairness Institute.
But Doug Stafford, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, said no one should rush to judgment about the bill's status.
“This announcement should not be seen as a definitive answer from the senator -- or as the conclusion to the battle on Card Check,” Stafford said.
“While we certainly welcome Senator Specter’s reconsideration of his past support for Big Labor’s number one legislative goal, it should be met with some skepticism – and that skepticism can be reinforced by simply reading down far enough through his speech today," he added.
Stafford pointed to the fact that, in his speech, Specter did not rule out trying to pass reforms to the National Labor Relations Act -- including some of card-check's provisions.
“If efforts are unsuccessful to give Labor sufficient bargaining power through amendments to the NLRA, then I would be willing to reconsider Employees’ (sic) Free Choice legislation when the economy returns to normalcy,” Specter said.
Both sides say they will not give up their respective fights for and against the legislation, which would allow unions to form in workplaces if a majority of employees sign union cards in a public meeting.Opponents say the bill would effectively eliminate secret ballot union elections.
It would also require mandatory arbitration if both sides in a new labor relationship can’t reach agreement on a first contract within 120 days.
Unions, meanwhile, say they are not giving up their fight to pass the card check bill.
“The Employee Free Choice Act is critical legislation that will restore our middle class and give workers back the freedom to bargain for a better life,” Maxwell said. “The mission to restore our middle class has never been more important than it is right now.”
And employers seem equally adamant.
“The Employee ‘Forced’ Choice Act would result in millions of jobs lost, increased unemployment, elimination of workers rights, and allow government to dictate contract terms to small businesses,” Stafford said.
A compromise, however, could be in the offing. Three major companies – all known for “progressive” management – proposed an alternative plan over the weekend. Starbucks, Whole Foods – the nation’s top organic food supermarket – and warehouse giant Costco joined forces to promote what they call "a compromise" alternative.
“Our role is to trigger a conversation between business and labor to try to find common ground on the principle of a level playing field," attorney Lanny Davis, who represents the three companies, told reporters in a conference call.