Specter Unveils Revised EFCA Bill
By Alec MacGillis
PITTSBURGH -- Sen. Arlen Specter, long the most closely-watched man in America when it comes to labor law reform, today embraced his latest role: as a passionate Democrat declaring that a rejiggered Employee Free Choice Act will pass this year.
An hour before President Obama appeared at the AFL-CIO convention here to reaffirm his support for bill, Specter told hundreds of cheering union officials that by year's end Congress would pass labor law legislation that "will be totally satisfactory to labor."
After his speech, Specter detailed the revised bill he has been crafting with Senate Democrats, the rough outlines of which have been trickling out for weeks. The revised measure would not include the most controversial provision -- allowing workers to organize by getting their co-workers to sign pro-union cards, instead of having to hold secret-ballot elections in the workplace. Unions argue that such elections are unfairly dominated by employer threats and intimidation, but the provision to drop the secret-ballot election has proved highly unpopular with conservative Senate Democrats.
Instead, Specter said, the bill would try to make union elections more fair by sharply limiting the time between organizers' declaration that they have enough support to call an election and the day of the vote, to reduce the potential for employer intimidation. Organizers would also be guaranteed access to workers if employers held mandatory anti-union meetings on company time. And the penalties for employers who break labor law rules would be triple what they are today.
The bill would also tweak its other major element, which has gotten less attention but is also anathema to employers -- mandatory arbitration for employers and unions who fail to reach a contract within a few months. As it stands, more than a third of newly formed unions never get a first contract and wither away, which is why labor supporters say mandatory arbitration is needed. But employers vigorously oppose having government-appointed mediators set contract terms. To allay employer concerns that unions would ask for the moon in hopes of the mediator splitting the difference, the revised bill would go with "last best offer arbitration" -- the approach used in baseball arbitration, in which the mediator has to pick one offer or the other, which encourages the negotiators to offer a reasonable deal.
Specter told reporters that he was confident that this package would get the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster -- and not one more. No Republicans would vote for the bill, he predicted, but he was sure that every Democrat would vote against a filibuster, including conservative Democrats who were very wary of the initial "card check" bill, such as Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) He said he had spoken with both of them and while they did not say so explicitly, he was left with the impression that they would help break a filibuster, if not vote for the bill itself.
Opponents of the legislation were less convinced. "What matters is not whether the AFL-CIO has cut a new backroom deal on the bill, it is whether it can be sold to Senate moderates who are worried about saving jobs, especially their own," said Steven J. Law, chief legal officer and general counsel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in statement responding to word of the prospective bill.
Specter's lead role in cobbling together the revised bill is just his latest incarnation on labor law reform. Near the end of the Bush presidency, he was the lone Republican to vote against a filibuster when Senate Democrats brought forward the bill. But as he started preparing for his primary reelection this spring, he came under sustained assault for his labor sympathies from employer groups and his likely conservative challenger. Feeling the pressure, he stunned union leaders by declaring on the Senate floor that he could not support, or even vote for cloture, on the card check bill as written. Labor leaders made clear that Specter would not be getting the support they had given him in the past, even when he ran against Democrats.
But then came Spencer's switch to the Democratic Party -- and a rejoining of the labor fold. Today, the AFL-CIO backs him against his primary challenger, Joe Sestak. And in Pittsburgh, he touted not only the revised labor law bill, but also his past support for OSHA rules, the Davis-Bacon laws setting wages for government contracts, and action against trade violations such as the recent alleged rule-breaking by Chinese tire manufacturers. He even declared that the single-payer option should be part of the health care debate, before adding that he thought a "robust" public option was the best way to go.
He concluded his list of pro-labor positions with characteristic (and perhaps inadvertent) candor: "I realize that elections are won or lost with the support of the AFL-CIO," he said. "I thank you for your help in the past and will do my utmost to merit your support in the future."
And a moment later with reporters, he seemed to make a joke about his changing positions -- and party affiliation. Asked if he was thinking of changing the name of the labor law bill to reflect its revised content, he said he was not. "At this point, I'm thinking of changing my own name," he said.
Web Politics Editor
September 15, 2009; 2:33 PM ET
Categories: Dem. Leaders
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