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Is The Time Ripe For A Stronger Union Bill?

The ideological war playing out between big labor and big business over the so-called card-check legislation has frequently bordered on hysteria.

Central to the agitation is a provision in the proposed Employee Free Choice Act that would allow unions to form if more than 50 percent of workers sign authorization cards. That would strip employers of their current right to call for a secret ballot vote to confirm the decision.

Depending on who's making the argument — and in what multimillion-dollar ad campaign — the card-check proposal would either end democracy as we know it, or provide workers the only path to wage and benefit growth at a time of out-of-control executive compensation.

And both sides argue that they simply want to wring coercion from union organizing. The business community says that the secret ballot allays union strong-arming; the unions argue that simple sign-up prevents employers from harassing workers in the lag time between petitioning to organize and an employer-called secret election.

"This is an easy issue to demagogue," says T.A. Frank, a fellow at the New America Foundation and an editor at the Washington Monthly.

New Focus On Organized Labor

Obscured by the pitched debate have been other parts of the act that would not only stiffen penalties for employers who violate labor standards but also require arbitration if negotiations between employer and union fail.

With prospects for compromise on the card check remote at best, those provisions are getting increased attention.

And some union activists suggest that the path to a "win" in late summer, when the bill is expected to hit the Senate floor, will require reworking the legislation to retain the secret ballot option prized by business.

That has meant a renewed focus on what organized labor sees as an equally big, if not bigger, victory: mandatory arbitration to settle failed negotiations.

Under EFCA, an arbitrator would be brought in if an employer and the union in their first contract negotiations are unable to reach an agreement in 120 days. The arbitrator could impose a two-year contract.

Business leaders say that the arbitration provision is as lethal as card check, and they will not be moved by any tweaking of the bill.

"There is no compromise on this bill from the business community," says J.P. Fielder of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has made opposition to the act the centerpiece of its political agenda.

Looking For Votes In Congress

But after 20 years of battling, could the unions and majority Democrats on Capitol Hill cobble together enough support to pass a major expansion of union-friendly workplace rules?

Gary Burtless of the liberal Brookings Institution says the math is very difficult.

"President Obama would need Roosevelt-like majorities to get this through," says Burtless. "Democrats in the South are extremely hostile to unions, and they have very little reason to support them because they're not terribly important in their states."

The unions know that Obama needs them to shepherd through his signature issue: remaking the nation's health care system. But it is unclear how much political capital the White House will be willing to spend on an issue not at the top of its priority list.

A Fight Worth Fighting Now?

Frank of the New America Foundation says that he wants to see a health care overhaul happen "as soon as absolutely possible," and he worries that the EFCA debate has the potential to compromise coalitions needed for that effort.

"I want to maintain this fragile consensus to do something about health care," says Frank, who says he's "terrified but fascinated" by the EFCA debate.

"I think it will, perhaps unfairly, cost Democrats a lot of political capital if they press for it," he says.

Democrats say they have the votes to pass EFCA in the House, but they are struggling to come up with a strategy to attract enough support in the Senate to ensure a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.

But there is, activists say, real movement to get something done in a year when the politics and state of the country present an opportunity they might not see again for a long time.

Leadership not only needs to corral Democrats like moderate Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska but also attract moderate Republicans like Maine's two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter.

Specter was the only Senate Republican who supported the bill two years ago when it was blocked by a GOP filibuster. But he faces a tough re-election battle next year.

And with the parties so ideologically divided on the issue, leaders are still stymied over what sweetener could be added to get the needed votes.

The National Mood

A Gallup Poll released Tuesday found that 53 percent of those surveyed said they favored a new law that would "make it easier to organizer workers." Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed opposed such a law. And 55 percent said that it was "somewhat" or "very" important that Congress pass such a law. But the poll also found that 58 percent of those following the issue closely oppose the card-check legislation.

More than any piece of legislation, it may be economic conditions, coupled with taxpayer furor over Wall Street rip-offs, that would spur a union revival. Currently, only about 7 percent of the country's wage and salary workers hold jobs covered by collective bargaining.

"If there is a union resurgence, I think it will be motivated by factors that made it successful in the '30s, '40s and '50s — a sense of outrage, of workers being treated shabbily," Burtless says.

"That's the kind of environment we're in: fury over protection to big banks, and the sense that the sky's the limit for these people," he says. "That's what it looks like to a huge proportion of ordinary workers."

But EFCA will get its day in the sun.

Lobbyists working the issue on Capitol Hill say they expect that the Democratic leadership will rework the bill and get it on the floor before Congress breaks for its August recess.

It will get "one bite of the apple," said one lobbyist, "because next year it's not going to happen."

Next year, of course, is an election year.

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