AFL-CIO Says Card-Check Is Imminent
By Alec MacGillis
Buttressed by a new statement of support from President Obama, union leaders said today they are confident that the Employee Free Choice Act would be introduced in Congress in the next few weeks and that they had the 60 votes needed to break a Senate filibuster -- that is, if Al Franken is seated.
"We're confident right now that we have majority support," said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's legislative director, speaking in a conference call from the AFL-CIO's executive council meeting in Miami. The bill would be introduced in "days if not weeks," he said. "We've been engaged in a marathon on this, and now we're ready to sprint."
The legislation, by far the top priority for organized labor, would make it easier to form unions because it gives workers the option of organizing by having workers sign cards of support, instead of going through secret-ballot elections that labor leaders say can be marked by intimidation by employers. The legislation would require employers to submit to binding arbitration if they were unable to agree to a contract within 90 days after a union's formation.
Business groups and Republicans are strongly opposed to the bill, often dubbed "card-check." They say it would expose workers to intimidation by union organizers and would hurt employers at a time when they are already reeling from the recession. The Chamber of Commerce and other groups are spending heavily to run ads against the bill and to drum up opposition in states that are home to senators who may be on the fence. Unions are countering with their own media and grass-roots campaign, although they have been somewhat distracted by nasty internal rifts within two of the biggest unions, the Service Employees International Union and UNITE-HERE, which represents garment and hotel workers.
Both sides have been closely watching Obama for signs of how strongly he'll push for the bill. Obama co-sponsored the legislation as a senator, but he has given signals since the November election that it would not necessarily be one of his earliest priorities as president. Days before the inauguration, he told The Washington Post editorial board that he was open to revising the legislation if there were other ways of expanding worker rights while drawing broader political and business support.
In a video-taped statement delivered to the AFL-CIO council meeting this week, Obama made clear that the legislation remained on his to-do list. "As we confront this crisis and work to provide health care to every American, rebuild our nation's infrastructure, move toward a clean energy economy, and pass the Employee Free Choice Act, I want you to know that you will always have a seat at the table," he said.
As important as Obama's support is the need for the support of 60 senators to break a filibuster on the bill, which would mean keeping all of the 52 senators who voted for the bill before, plus all of the new Democrats in the chamber. Samuel said repeatedly that unions are confident that they will have exactly 60 senators on board if Al Franken is finally seated and that they are still hoping to swing a few more senators on board for breathing room. He was asked specifically about three centrist Democrats -- Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana -- and he said resolutely that he was sure they would vote for it, whatever their public comments now.
This confidence, Samuel said, was based on "their record . . . their entire career."
"It's true that in some states it's more difficult than in others to be publicly out there right now," he said, given the lobbying in their states against the bill. "Some members prefer to stay behind the curtain as it were until it's closer. . . . I'm not surprised at some of the signals being sent. We're confident. They're having discussions with workers back home."
Some Democrats and labor supporters do not share that confidence, fearing that centrist Democrats in states that are not strongly pro-labor were able to vote for the bill last time only because they knew it would not pass under President Bush. Samuel rejected that logic, saying there was actually a stronger argument now for supporting the bill, given the new attention to the plight of workers and the imbalance in the economy.
"It's a different economy, a different environment," Samuel said. "And we expect to have a White House that's fully engaged."
March 4, 2009; 5:47 PM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency
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