Labor sees early returns on 2008 election with Congress’s first votes

The House is scheduled to vote this week on two bills that serve as top priorities for organized labor, despite complaints from business that the legislation has not received hearings in the new Congress.

House votes on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act will be among the first cast by the 111th Congress, which includes a larger Democratic majority than the last House. Both are expected to pass overwhelmingly, with votes anticipated later this week.

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Both bills moved through the House in the last Congress but were stopped in the Senate, where Democrats held only 51 seats. Democrats in 2009 could hold 59 seats, pending the disputed Minnesota Senate race.

President-elect Obama would be expected to sign both bills if they reached his desk.

“President-elect Obama ran on a campaign of hope and change. Right out of the bag, he is going to live up to his commitment,” said Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Services Employees International Union.

“We hope they will follow up soon with more legislation that will help with working families,” said Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO.

Business groups are not pleased with the early votes on labor bills, and complain they were not subject to hearings and markups in this Congress. They also say the two scheduled votes are an indication of the rough year they could have with the Democratic House.

It was “ominous” how quickly the House leadership was moving on the legislation, said Randy Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who also complained about the lack of debate.

“We are disappointed at the way they are ramrodding these bills through,” Johnson said. “We hope it is not a sign of how future labor legislation will be treated, but we do have our concerns.”

The Ledbetter Act would reverse a 2007 decision by the Supreme Court that said employees must file pay discrimination claims within 180 days of when they first agree to their salaries. Courts found Ledbetter, a supervisor at an Alabama Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant, had suffered from discrimination, but the Supreme Court ruled she filed her claim too late. The measure would establish a 180-day statute of limitations after every paycheck.

Johnson argues the bill would allow workers to file claims years after they were discriminated against, leading to more and greater damages for employers.

“Statutes of limitations are put into law so both sides can get timely information when going to the court,” Johnson said. “We are interested in a compromise on this issue, but we believe the bill goes way too far.”

{mospagebreak}The Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen the Equal Pay Act, which was designed to end wage discrimination between men and women. If passed, the bill would allow plaintiffs to more easily recover damages in the face of discrimination and expand into class-action suits.

“We believe women who do similar jobs to men should be paid the same,” Burger said.

Johnson said the bill is far too punitive, severely hurting business, and is “a giveaway to the trial bar.”

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Unions campaigned hard in the fall for Democrats, helping with get-out-the-vote activities and running television advertisements that highlighted bills labor hopes the new Congress will approve. Unions directed millions in campaign contributions to Democrats and relative handfuls to labor-friendly Republicans.

Many union officials see the quick move by House leaders to schedule the two votes on labor bills as a signal of support for their priorities.

The unions’ biggest legislative goal is passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, otherwise known as “card-check.” The measure would allow workers to organize by signing authorization cards, and would remove the requirement of a secret-ballot election. The fight over the bill is set for an all-out lobbying blitz by business and labor.

While the paycheck fairness and Ledbetter bills are expected to win approval, the card-check bill remains a tougher sell. It won fewer votes than the Ledbetter bill in the Senate, and some Senate Democrats have offered public comments that call into question whether they’ll vote for the bill this year.

Johnson expressed confidence the Senate would not approve either bill. He predicted the quick action in the House would help his lobbying efforts, and predicted some freshman senators would oppose the bills when they learned more about them.

“You are counting the freshman Democrats as ‘yeses’ on the cloture petition but they have not committed as of yet,” Johnson said. “With a lot of hard work, we have a shot of defeating these.”

Unions, however, are much more positive about their chances for the battles ahead, given the larger Democratic majorities.

“This election was about change. I think the Senate understands that as well,” Burger said.