There might be new life in an old union-friendly bill now that President-elect Barack Obama is headed for the White House and Democrats have tightened their grip on Congress.
The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy (D. -Mass.) in early 2007, would make it easier for workers to unionize by replacing federally supervised secret-ballot elections with a "card check," a move that would compel companies to recognize and bargain with a union if a majority of workers simply signed authorization cards.
Although the measure passed in the House in March 2007 by a vote of 241 to 185, it later fell short of the 60 votes required in the Senate to proceed with a full debate and floor vote.
With Democrats in control of both Congress and the White House, the bill is likely to resurface, perhaps as early as January, according to Rhonda Bentz, spokesperson with the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for a Democratic Workplace (CDW), which opposes the measure.
"We expect EFCA to be one of the first bills submitted to the new Congress," Bentz says.
CDW and others contend that depriving workers of a private vote would subject them to intimidation and coercion from union officials, who would oversee the card-check process and be privy to how individual workers voted.
Another concern is a contract mediation and arbitration provision that would refer contract disputes between employer and union to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) if the disputes weren't resolved within 90 days. If the FMCS proved unsuccessful in uniting the parties, it would refer the matter to arbitration, with the results binding for a period of two years.
"Essentially, the provision says a government mediator can run your business for two years if business and labor can't come to terms," Bentz says. "I think it would be very difficult for restaurants and other businesses to create jobs and grow their businesses under those circumstances."
Several organizations, including the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association (NRA), agree, having joined CDW to protest the measure.
"We have 500 members and are growing by the day," Bentz says.
NRA Chairman Michael Kaufman recently affirmed that defeat of EFCA remains a top priority, indicating the bill "is not good for the restaurant industry at all."
"In the past, the restaurants didn't have to contend with union issues of this magnitude because of their high turnover rates and the fact that so many chains are franchised, but this one is a game changer," explains John Gay, NRA senior vice president of government affairs. "Card checks pave the way for workers to organize much more quickly and easily, without the time needed for both management and organizers to make their case to workers."
Supporters of the measure, including organized labor, contend the current system subjects workers to intimidation by employers prior to voting.
"Today we have 60 million workers in this country who say they would form or join a union tomorrow if they could," AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holtbaker noted in a statement. "Unfortunately, when workers try to form or join a union in this country, they are met with employee interference, intimidation, and harassment. In about 25 percent of cases, employers will fire workers illegally for trying to have a voice at work."
"All the more reason to keep votes private," Bentz responds.
Obama, who as senator signed on as a sponsor of EFCA, rarely addressed the issue before general audiences on the campaign trail, but promised unions he would sign the bill if he won the presidency.
"We're ready to play offense for organized labor," he told AFL-CIO members in April 2007. "It's time we had a president who didn't choke saying the word 'union'—a president who strengthens our unions by letting them do what they do best: organize our workers."
Bentz say to look for strong opposition to EFCA from a broad base of business coalitions
On November 20, CDW delivered to Capitol Hill a letter urging members of the Senate and House "to oppose all efforts to pass any provision included in the Employee Free Choice Act … We wanted to take the opportunity to remind members of Congress of the overwhelming opposition from the business community, their constituents, and union households to this anti-worker legislation. This bill is a job-killer and fundamentally undemocratic."
Signatories included all 500 CDW member organizations.
"It's unfathomable that Congress would take away a worker's right to vote in private." Gay says. "Frankly, we don't think this is a bill that can even be fixed."