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Unions, employers gearing up for card check battle

To hear Collegeville builder Gustavo Perea tell it, the prospect is frightening. Some ambitious union organizer would take his carpenters out to a bar, buy them a couple of beers, get them to sign some union cards, and the next thing Perea knows, he'd wake up in the morning with a union shop.

To hear Collegeville builder Gustavo Perea tell it, the prospect is frightening.

Some ambitious union organizer would take his carpenters out to a bar, buy them a couple of beers, get them to sign some union cards, and the next thing Perea knows, he'd wake up in the morning with a union shop.

That's how he imagines the future if the federal Employee Free Choice Act is passed - a proposed law that unions say would make it easier for them to bring unions into workplaces. It would allow workers to bypass traditional union-establishing elections if a majority sign cards that would authorize a union, a process known as card check.

"It's a bad law," said Perea, president of Adams-Bickel Associates Inc.

Union organizers such as Harry Arnold disagree.

"We are not afraid of elections," said Arnold, who works locally for the Communications Workers of America and specializes in organizing cable and telecom employees. "It's what happens during the time the company gets to intimidate the workers [before the election]" that worries organizers, he said.

Other provisions in the bill stiffen penalties for unfair business practices against pro-union workers and require binding arbitration if both sides cannot agree on a first contract.

Perea and thousands of other businesses are behind a big push to defeat the bill - President Obama's top promise to organized labor, which provided important parts of the grassroots machinery that helped elect him. Experts say the bill might be introduced in the House in March or April, but the key Senate vote probably won't occur until June.

The national Chamber of Commerce has spent $10 million in recent months opposing the proposed legislation, while labor, through the AFL-CIO and affiliate organizations, launched a $3 million advertising campaign in mid-January.

In the first week of February, both sides sent their troops to Washington to lobby in well-publicized events. Union workers delivered a petition with more than a million signatures supporting the act. The National Association of Manufacturers dispatched 50 chief executives.

Perea's not surprised that passing the bill is organized labor's top priority this year.

"Unions have been losing ground," Perea said. "The world has changed. It's an archaic and antique method of working."

Arnold's not surprised that defeating the bill is the chamber's top priority this year.

"The extra weight given to this - obviously it's a power struggle," he said. "It's not about the workers having an election, it's about their [employers'] access to intimidate workers."

For organized labor, the Obama presidency feels like a salve. His nominee for secretary of labor, U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis (D., Calif), backed the Employee Free Choice bill when it was introduced in 2007. And Obama encouraged labor by reversing Bush policies involving unions on large-scale public construction projects during Obama's first month in office.

But Obama has barely mentioned the Employee Free Choice issue since he won.

Advisers and outside political strategists say that Obama cannot afford to get bogged down in a nasty fight on the polarizing issue at the same time he is trying to right the economy.

Obama said in an interview last week that he would proceed carefully, urging labor and business groups to work together on a compromise proposal that would remove impediments to organizing while addressing the "legitimate concerns" of business.

"Whether those conversations can bear fruit over the next several months, we'll see," Obama said. "But I'm always a big believer [that] before we gear up for some tooth-and-nail battle . . . we see if some accommodations can't be found."

By and large, labor leaders have held off as Obama's economic-recovery legislation commanded the stage, but their patience might fade.

Unions must hold politicians' feet to the fire, Fred Azcarate, one of the AFL-CIO's point people on this issue, told hundreds of Philadelphia area labor leaders meeting in Atlantic City for a convention earlier this month.

Holding up his cell phone, he urged them to call a politician during their lunch break.

"We need to get our leaders and our members talking to them," he said. "We're on the verge of getting this done."

From labor's perspective, it can't happen too soon.

After decades of decline, union membership as a percentage of the workforce has edged up slightly to 12.4 percent, or 16.1 million workers. But that blip is misleading; 25 years ago, one in five workers belonged to a union.

The numbers alone don't tell the story of how steep labor's decline has been, said Temple University history professor Bryant Simon. In the 1940s and 1950s, no serious policy issue was discussed in America without labor having "a seat at the table," he said.

Even with the 428,000 new workers added to union ranks last year, it's been hard for unions to grow.

In labor's heyday, people led similar lives, working and worshipping near their homes, Simon said. "The problem for labor is the way jobs have changed," he said. "It was one thing to organize a factory of 3,000 workers. It is another thing to organize retail workers who might change jobs three times a year. Those workers need the protection of unions, but it's hard to organize those workers."

In the end, it will be decided by politics.

The act is considered a lock for passage in the House, with the Senate the real battleground, because of the filibuster, a parliamentary procedure that can indefinitely delay the passage of controversial legislation. Republicans killed the bill in the Senate in 2007 with a filibuster, and by the time the bill comes up, the Democrats will likely remain at least one vote short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.

Unions will have a tough time, said Randall Johnson, the National Chamber of Commerce vice president for labor. He said many legislators who wanted to please labor, but had doubts, had voted for the bill in the past knowing that President Bush would veto it.

"It was a freebie to give to the unions," he said.

Now the focus is on centrist Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), who broke with his party this month to support Obama's recently passed stimulus bill.

Specter voted in 2007 to break the filibuster on the Employee Free Choice Act, because, he said at the time, he was in favor of open debate. He never did say how he would have voted on the substance of the bill.

Specter has enjoyed substantial union support in past campaigns. But he is up for reelection next year and he has never been completely trusted by his party's right wing, which has focused on card check as a rallying issue. In addition, the business lobby, a key part of the GOP coalition, is adamantly opposed to the possibility of card check.

"I've never seen an issue that unites folks as strongly as this one - all the usual fissures in the party disappear," said Mark Harris, a conservative GOP consultant in western Pennsylvania.

So far, Specter has declined to say how he would vote. "What concerns me about card check is what the impact will be on the economy," Specter said in January. "You'll pardon me if I consider the public policy considerations as opposed to the political considerations."

Pennsylvania's labor organizations are keeping up the pressure. One of the nation's largest unions, Service Employees International Union, is running a local spot, thanking Specter for his leadership on the stimulus package.

"Arlen Specter is key to this vote," Azcarate said at the local labor convention.

In a recent news conference about its well-funded plans to oppose the legislation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out that organized labor has set aside tens of millions of dollars "to go after members who don't toe the line on this issue and other issues," said Steven Law, the Chamber's chief legal officer.

"If this is how organized labor is going to treat lawmakers in broad daylight," Law said, "it paints an ugly picture of how they would treat a defenseless worker in a parking lot at night."

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Coming tomorrow: Binding arbitration and stiffer penalties are also part of the Employee Free Choice Act, although they have been overshadowed by the secret ballot issue.