Liberals Hold Prayer Breakfast in U.S. Capitol to Pray for Bill to End Secret Ballots in Union Organizing

Adam Brickley | May 19, 2009 | 8:09pm EDT
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U.S. Capitol (Wikimedia photo)

Washington ( – Union leaders, clergy and liberal members of Congress gathered in the mostly empty U.S. Capitol Visitors Center early Tuesday morning to hear multicultural choir music, speeches from religious leaders--and to pray for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

The event was a prayer breakfast sponsored by Faith Leaders for Workplace Fairness--a coalition of liberal religious groups that was formed for the sole purpose of promoting EFCA, commonly known as the “card-check” bill.

Under this bill, union organizers could compel an employer to recognize a union as representing the employer's workers any time more than 50 percent of workers in a workplace publicly signed cards saying they wanted the union. When that happened, there would be no secret ballot among the workers on whether to unionize, and the workers who had not signed the public cards would have no say in the matter.
In addition, if the employer did not agree to a contract with the union within 90 days, he would have to submit to mandatory arbitration in which the federal government would set the pay and benefits for his workers.

The Rev. Sue Gaeta, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) minister representing the Gamaliel National Clergy Caucus, told the gathering that “faith traditions encourage us and compel us” to stand for “workplace justice.” 

When asked whether she thought there is a religious obligation or a moral responsibility for workers to unionize, Gaeta replied: "I would say that there is a religious moral obligation to allow that choice for workers to unionize. Yes."

Another speaker, Father Joseph Fahey of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, said that the right to form trade unions is “at the core” of the Catholic understanding of justice.

Fahey, meanwhile, said that Catholic teaching doesn’t compel someone to vote one way or the other on unionization. 

“That's a matter of personal judgment that I would respect,” Fahey said. “There can be utilitarian reasons why workers may not [support unionization] in any individual cases."

The attendees were “commissioned” by the Rev. Steve Copley of Little Rock, Ark., before dispersing into groups to lobby their respective senators. 

At a news conference after the breakfast, meanwhile, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), called the EFCA “one of the real social justice issues of our time” and said that pro-EFCA messages should filter down to "local churches, synagogues, and mosques"--since, he said, some U.S. senators attend houses of worship. 

Before the union and religious leaders fanned out on Capitol Hill, one congresswoman not only talked about EFCA in moral terms, she condemned possible compromise legislation.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), who told the group that “the faith community has always been on the side of workers,” announced that she had stopped holding “coffee conversations” at Starbucks stores in her district, citing the company’s position on EFCA. She said the events would either be moved to a different location or discontinued.

Starbucks, the Seattle-based coffee giant, drew her wrath because it is part of a coalition that includes the warehouse giant Costco and the organic supermarket chain Whole Foods--the Committee for a Level Playing Field--that has produced a compromise alternative to EFCA.
Spokeswoman Eileen M. O’Connor told that the committee of progressive companies came up with the compromise because “the conversation in Washington surrounding the Employee Free Choice Act had become very polarized and, in the committee's view, unproductive.”
“Starbucks recognizes that the way in which current labor law is enforced is flawed and backs six principles to level the playing field for both labor and employers,” O'Connor, an attorney, said in an e-mail.
But the Starbucks/Costco/Whole Foods compromise would guarantee that both workers and employers could insist on a secret-ballot election--and would allow either workers or businesses to initiate a campaign to decertify a union through a secret-ballot election “just as employees and unions are presently able to initiate certification and decertification campaigns,” according to the compromise proposal.
In addition, the Starbucks-Costco-Whole Foods compromise would eliminate the EFCA’s provision requiring binding arbitration. But it would toughen penalties for companies that discriminate against workers for union organizing.
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