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Working In These Times

Friday, Jul 17, 2009, 3:12 pm

Senate EFCA Compromise Reportedly Cuts ‘Card Check’; Unions Keep up Pressure

BY David Moberg

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The New York Times reported today that Senate negotiators are nearing a compromise on the Employee Free Choice Act that would provide quick elections for union recognition but would not guarantee workers a union if a majority of people at a workplace show their support for one through “card check.”

Even though the substitution of quick elections might win over conservative Democrats to provide 60 votes in the Senate, and thus avert a Republican filibuster against one of organized labor’s top priorities for a “half loaf” victory, the deal appears far from final.

SEIU president Andy Stern quickly issued a statement reaffirming support for majority sign-up, adding, “The Employee Free Choice Act is going through the usual legislative process, and we expect a vote on a majority sign-up provision in the final bill or by amendment in both houses of Congress.”

AFL-CIO spokesperson Alison Omens said, “There has been no agreement. Everything is still on the table. Labor law reform should have everything in the Employee Free Choice Act,” which provides stiffer penalties for employer labor law violations and an option of arbitration to guarantee workers get a first contract, as well as majority sign-up, or “a system that allows for workers to get representation without employer intimidation.”

That standard formulation of labor’s objectives obviously could include something other than majority sign-up, especially if it included prohibition on employer “captive audience” meetings and equal access to workers for union organizers, something negotiators were considering, the New York Times reported.

Giving up majority sign-up would represent a setback for labor at the hands of a few Democratic senators, such as converted Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who will need labor votes to survive what promises to be a tough primary. Employers can quickly “poison the well” and intimidate workers even in a quick election, organizers warn.

But depending on the details, a quick election alternative could still help unions organize, and it’s important to remember that not even majority sign-up would make organizing a snap.

Getting even a compromise through the Senate will not only require winning over conservative Democrats and retaining union support but also getting two ailing senators–Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd–on the Senate floor to reach the magic 60 votes.

Unions have mobilized grassroots support forcefully, especially considering that the major beneficiaries would be workers not yet in unions (and thus hard to mobilize) and that it has taken much work to persuade existing members, most with little experience of brutal employer opposition to union organizing, that labor law reform is important for them.

But well-funded employer campaigns undercut labor’s message by holding out elections as the only democratic procedure for organizing, even though the law now permits majority sign-up if the employer agrees. Employers are not likely to support even a quick-election compromise, especially if there is a meaningful option for arbitration to assure a first contract.

Unions meanwhile clearly continue to press for the original EFCA, even though they’re not ruling out some alternative.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at

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