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Back Channels: Card check: Watch the good senator tiptoe

Needing the votes of moderate Democrats, Specter now tries to save it.

In March, it seemed the pro-union legislation known as "card check" was dead - thanks in part to Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.).

Before that, Specter had been coy about the Employee Free Choice Act. He'd voted to allow a debate on the measure in 2007, without commenting on the substance. In March, he had two main concerns: (1) card check, where workers sign cards to indicate support for a union instead of holding a secret-ballot election, and (2) the potential harm of increasing costs to businesses in a recession.

Well, the recession continues, but card check lives - thanks in part to Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.).

Specter and five other colleagues are trying to craft a compromise that would appeal to moderate senators. The New York Times says they are even considering dropping the card-check provision.

Majority Leader Harry Reid had predicted the bill would be back. He said in March, "Anyone who thinks they're burying card check because of Specter's statement in an effort to avoid a primary in Pennsylvania should not think this legislation is going to go away."

Then, the issue was the GOP primary and a rematch against Pat Toomey, who almost beat Specter in 2004. At that point, Specter was trying to appeal to conservatives.

But a month later he switched parties, and now needs labor support because of the expected primary challenge from U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Delaware County.

So card check lives - in some undisclosed form.

Last week, Toomey described Specter's maneuvering this way: "He's been on both sides of the issue, and now he's trying for a third side."

Specter would only say, in a statement from his office, "The negotiations are best served by no public comments at this time."

His potential challengers aren't reluctant to comment.

Toomey calls card check "a very bad bill" that is "entirely about rewarding big labor for its efforts in the last election."

"The centerpiece is to deny workers a secret-ballot election and spread unionization by intimidation," Toomey said. "Now, the public is so overwhelmingly opposed to denying workers the secret ballot that the bill is untenable politically."

So labor and its Senate supporters are involved in a salvage operation.

Sestak supports card check, including the mandatory binding arbitration provision that businesses say will have the government unfairly imposing wages and working conditions - and will force companies to lay off workers.

The congressman argues that there is often too much delay in either holding a vote or negotiating a contract. Card check would provide the closure that both sides need.

"One, you have to be able to have an election, a determinant that people do want to unionize or not," he said in an interview. "Two, you have to be able to get to a contract."

But if unions are willing to compromise, he said he would be too.

However, potential changes to the bill haven't mollified critics, who say that neither card check nor binding arbitration is acceptable.

Under current law, if workers vote for a union, the collective bargaining process can go on indefinitely. The two sides can opt for arbitration - but in most cases they can't be forced into it.

"I've seen situations where workers waited two years for a first contract," says Eileen Connelly, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Council of the Service Employees International Union. "All the while employers can continue their anti-union campaign."

Card check would require a contract by a certain time. If agreement couldn't be reached, a government arbitrator would step in and set contract terms.

Connelly sees card check balancing the playing field between workers and business.

Not surprisingly, Jerry Gorski, national chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors, disagrees. Not only is the bill unfair to workers and businesses, he says, but it also shows a mind-set that ignores the realities of the global economy.

"Why is the government saying, 'Well, we need to make it easier to go back to that union model,' instead of being progressive and helping develop what the new models are?" Gorski asks.

Workers and owners need flexibility, Gorski argues, not rules that say who can use a hammer and who can't.

He says being flexible allowed his contracting business in Collegeville to avoid layoffs during the current recession, though that sometimes means carpenters painting or landscaping.

"We may be underutilizing someone's skills," Gorski says, "but everybody is working, and that's the kind of stability and adaptability we need. . . . Legislation isn't going to solve our workforce needs for the future."

Yet it's clear that legislation is the goal - at least for some. But to what end? Better jobs? Fewer jobs? Or just saving one senator's job?