WASHINGTON – Congress is one step closer to helping unions organize easier and faster in the workplace — a move that has many Republicans and business interests girding for a fight and the White House threatening a veto.
By a 241-185 vote Thursday, the House passed a bill to modify the National Labor Relations Act to allow employees to bypass a secret ballot election and instead unionize by gathering "check cards" with signatures from a majority of employees in the workplace.
The bill, called the "Employee Free Choice Act of 2007," would be the most significant change in the law since 1947, labor experts say. It would also impose stiffer penalties on employers who violate union protections under the law, and force contract negotiations into binding arbitration if the employer fails to agree on a contract with a newly formed union within 90 days.
Unions and their supporters behind the act hailed Thursday's vote as a victory for the middle class.
"There emerged in the last election a critique on the economy — people said they want the economy to work better for the average American. This is the centerpiece," said Stewart Acuff, national organizing director for the AFL-CIO, the largest umbrella union in the country, with 10 million affiliated members in its ranks. "The government can't mandate a middle class, but it can create a climate for it to expand."
But the prospect of new rules making it easier for unions to gain a foothold in the workplace has sent a shockwave through mostly Republican ranks in Congress, as well as the pro-business community outside. Despite the 230 co-sponsors — seven of them Republican — on the House measure, critics insist that changing the way employees can vote for a union is not popular with ordinary workers.
"This bill is bad for America and Americans don't want it," said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., in a statement Wednesday.
"I just think this is a wrong-headed approach," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who serves on the House Committee on Education and Labor. He said the bill is being pushed by big labor interests seeking to pump up declining union membership.
"The really amazing thing about this, is we all know — as Americans — the value of the secret ballot," he told FOXNews.com. "They (members of Congress) are yielding to pressure from big labor."
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is expected to introduce similar legislation in coming days in the Senate where observers expect more serious resistance from Republicans. President Bush has said he will veto the measure if it makes it to his desk.
Critics say this is a fight over the time-honored "secret ballot," and charge that the new card check scheme will leave rank-and-file members open to aggressive recruitment tactics by the unions.
"The idea is not to give unions more coercive powers over the worker, but for unions to make a better case to workers why they should form a union," said Greg Mourad, director of legislation for the National Right to Work Committee, which for years has assisted workers in filing complaints and lawsuits over unfair union practices.
But supporters balk at this, saying the "Employee Free Choice Act" protects workers from hostile management practices that fight — sometimes illegally — to prevent unions from forming at all.
Right now, when employees want to form a union, they have to get a petition signed by a majority of employees and present it to the employer. If the management wants to, it can accept the union immediately as long as a majority of employees sign check cards and 30 percent of them agree to bypass the secret ballot.
If not, the employer can pursue a secret ballot election, the date of which is determined by the National Labor Relations Board. Acuff said most employers prefer to set a date for elections, buying time to thwart the union, especially when it's clear a majority of employees want to unionize.
"(The election date) is usually six weeks to two months or even six months to a year — that's time enough for the employer to run its intimidation and retaliation campaign. It should not be like that," Acuff said.
The bill that passed the House Thursday would take the decision out of the employers' hands and allow for check card unionization all of the time, if that is what the employees want.
Acuff said that based on reviews by Human Rights Watch, at least 20,000 workers a year are either fired or "victimized" for engaging in union activities, even though such harassment from employers is illegal.
According to a 2000 survey of union organizing campaigns throughout the country by Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, there was a one in five chance a union supporter would be illegally fired for union activity during a campaign, and 51 percent of employers threatened to close the plant if the union won the election.
"This legislation is the beginning of the end of those years of strong-arming the workers," said Jeremy Funk, spokesman for Americans United for Change, a coalition of unions and supporters lobbying for act's passage in congress.
He and others say that as union membership has precipitously declined over the last few decades — no more than 11 to 12 percent of American workers are represented by a union today — so have health benefits, wage increases and retirement protections.
"We can track it that all along the declining rate of unionization," said Brian Obach, professor of sociology and labor expert with the State University of New York at New Paltz, who acknowledged that the decline of manufacturing has also hit unions hard since their peak in the 1950s.
But as service industry jobs have rushed to take the place of manufacturing, employers have gotten smarter and more aggressive at keeping unions out, Obach said. "This is one measure that may reverse the tide," he added.
"The secret ballot was kind of forced on us," said Nikkia Parish, a professional ballet dancer who successfully fought to have her Washington, D.C, ballet company unionized under the American Guild of Musicians and Arts in 2005.
While 19 out of 20 dancers signed the petition, the employers opted for an election, which she said was stalled repeatedly over a year while the company used harassment and "divide and conquer" techniques to dissuade the dancers from voting. The union was formed by a vote of 18 to 2, and Parish was fired shortly after.
"I think what the Employee Free Speech Act tries to do is give the workers the option" of avoiding that, Parish told FOXNews.com.
But not everyone believes the check card option is free of its own exploitation by union leaders. Jen Jason, a former organizer for UNITE-HERE union in Florida, told Congress in February that she was a witness to "disgraceful practices" on the part of union organizers, particularly in regard to the check card process.
She said after four years of going to potential union members' homes and persuading them to sign check cards in favor of union membership, she felt she and other organizers had devised expedient but unethical ways to get signatures, often by pressing key emotional buttons with employees.
Typically, workers she approached had no idea a union effort was even underway in their workplace, and they made for easy targets, she told the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions of the House Education and Labor Committee.
"Frankly, it isn't difficult to agitate someone in a short period of time, work them to the point where they are feeling very upset, tell them that I have the solution, and that if they simply sign a card, the union will solve all their problems," said Jason.
"I know many workers who later, upon reflection, knew that they had been manipulated and asked for their card to be returned to them," she added. "The union's strategy, of course, was never to return or destroy such cards, but to include them in the official count towards the majority."
Funk said he's heard the allegations before but they pale in comparison to the abuses of employers, who have the power to demote, transfer and fire employees, change job descriptions and generally make lives miserable.
As for using Thursday's victory for a future Senate showdown, Funk said, supporters were working furiously, but the odds aren't as good as they were in the House. Republicans can block the vote, say observers, and plan to try.
"We're leaving no stone unturned to get as much bipartisan support as possible," he said.