As a bill that would significantly ease union member recruitment moves to the Senate, retail and business associations' opposition is growing. Lines are stiffening between those who favor and those who oppose legislation that would amend the Labor Relations Act to make it significantly easier for employees to form and join labor unions.
Called the Employee Free Choice Act, HR 800 passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 241 to 185, mostly along party lines. The bill was, in fact, resuscitated following the past Congressional election, which gave Democrats a majority in the House. Thirteen Republicans joined Democrats in a "yes" vote, while just two Democrats voted "no."
The slimmer Democratic majority in the Senate makes its passage there less certain. Some Senators have threatened a filibuster, and President Bush has vowed to veto the bill. Lines are drawn not only between the two political parties, but also between unions and associations that represent retailer and other business organizations.
In summary, the Act would require the U.S. National Labor Relations Board to certify a union as the exclusive representative of employees, without an election, in cases where a majority of employees in an organizational unit sign authorizations. If employees and management within the organization don't come to agreement on the terms of an initial bargaining contact within 120 days, the issues in dispute are turned over to an arbitration board.
In addition, it delineates types of violations by management against employees, and provides for fines and penalties. Violations of the National Labor Relations Act during periods in which employees are attempting to form a union or negotiate a first time contract are subject to a civil fine of up to $20,000 per violation. In addition, the bill calls for damages of up to two times back pay if an employer is found to have violated an employee's rights during the organizing or first contract negotiating period.
Currently, the Labor Relations Act calls for secret ballots among employees to determine whether or not to unionize. Coercion is a key issue being raised among those on both sides of the argument.
The National Retail Federation (NRF) was among the first to oppose the proposed legislation. Business groups call it the card-check proposal, in reference to the manner in which employees would be permitted to authorize a union to represent them.
Under current law, employees vote in secret to determine whether or not they want to be represented by a union. The process is usually preceded by lobbying efforts by management and union representatives. Under the proposed amendment, the secrecy of individual votes is eliminated and employees simply check a preprinted card, indicating whether they do or do not want such representation.
"The secret ballot is one of the most sacred concepts of our nation's democracy," says Rob Green, NRF vice president for government and political affairs. "This bill says workers faced with an important decision in the workplace shouldn't have the same rights they have in the voting booth on Election Day."
The NRF also charges that introduction of the bill comes at a time when, "Organized union groups have indicated that they plan to target retailers and other industries whose workforces cannot be outsourced overseas." NRF vowed to lead the fight against the proposal. It also charged that the House moved too quickly for proper consideration of the measure.
NRF is far from alone in opposing the legislation. "Without holding a full committee hearing, the House rushed through this legislation in a matter of weeks without offering an opportunity for a comprehensive, fair debate," says Peter Kilgore, acting interim president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association.
"A worker's decision whether or not to participate in a union is an important one," Kilgore continues. "When a union is attempting to organize in a workplace, employees sometimes face intimidation and pressure about how they should vote from the union or from management or both."
"The only way to guarantee employee protection is through the continued use of a federally supervised secret ballot so that personal decisions about whether to join a union or not remains private," Kilgore adds. "No one, employers or union organizers, should fear an election conducted by secret ballot. It is the only way to protect an individual's freedom to choose without subtle or overt coercion."
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) charges that in replacing the traditional secret ballot with card checks, "Small business owners could find themselves effectively shut out of the process, as their employees decide whether to unionize. "To ensure employees are given a true choice," says NFIB, "they should be allowed to vote in a private voting booth where they aren't subject to potential intimidation, harassment or other coercive tactics used by union organizers."
By contrast, John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, says the legislation, "Levels the playing field to give workers a fighting chance to have a union and bargain for better wages and benefits." He cites research, which he says, "Shows that 60 million workers would join a union today if given the chance. But the system is stacked against them."
"Today's system for forming unions and bargaining is badly broken," Sweeney continues. "Employers routinely threaten, harass and coerce employees when they try to form unions."
He further charges, "A quarter even illegally fire workers." During organizing campaigns, he claims, "Workers are often forced into meetings to hear anti-union rhetoric. In essence they are made to choose between having a union and having a paycheck."
Not surprisingly, the National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR), which is a division of the NRF, also opposes the legislation, calling it, "Intrusive and anti-democratic." Scott Vinson, NCCR's vice president of government affairs, characterizes the Employee Free Choice Act as, "misnamed," and says, "It offers employees anything but a free choice when deciding whether or not to join a union. It opens the door to threats and intimidation from union organizers, the employer and co-workers."
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