Labor looks to score first big win in years

A coalition of business groups has launched a massive effort to defeat legislation under House consideration this week that is organized labor’s No. 1 priority for the 110th Congress.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is leading this drive, whose magnitude rivals the 2001 campaign supporting President Bush’s tax cuts. As of last week, the Chamber alone had directed more than 24,000 letters, phone calls and e-mails to House members in opposition to H.R. 800, the Employee Free Choice Act of 2007.

The effort has continued this week with advertising in 60 conservative-leaning blogs and e-mail blasts to House chiefs of staff and legislative assistants on labor. Along with the Chamber of Commerce, the business coalition includes dozens of national and local business groups. Together, they are targeting 51 congressional districts with radio advertisements and phone calls urging constituents to press their representative to oppose H.R. 800.

These districts cover 29 Democrats and 22 Republicans, including freshman Reps. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.), Ron Klein (D-Fla.), Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), David Loebsack (D-Iowa), Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), and Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.). All but Mahoney and Buchanan are cosponsors of the bill.

Veteran Republicans targeted by the campaign include Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) and Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.).

In terms of the effort, “we’re beating what we saw for the tax coalition in 2001,” said Bruce Josten, executive vice president of government affairs for the Chamber. Bill Miller, the chamber’s vice president for congressional affairs, said his group is also outpacing its work in the 2001 “prize fight” that it won over labor when Congress approved legislation rolling back the Clinton administration’s ergonomic rules.

Organized labor’s effort is just as intense. The AFL-CIO has sent more than 4.7 million messages to union members, their friends and family, and other allies, who have responded by sending 257,000 messages as of last week to members of Congress, sources with the group said.

The AFL-CIO last week organized 90 events across the country with various members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to raise awareness of the bill. It is also running newspaper advertisements in support of the bill.

Despite these efforts, sources on both sides acknowledge the bill is unlikely to become law this year. While the House will likely approve the measure this week, the Senate will probably not to be able to muster the 60 votes necessary to break an expected GOP filibuster on the legislation.

The tough Senate fight is illustrated by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the only GOP senator to cosponsor identical legislation last year. This year, Specter, whose business groups have lobbied on the issue, has taken no position, according to his office.

“It might not happen in this Congress,” said Kelly Ross, a legislative representative of the AFL-CIO. “But we’ll try to make it happen in this Congress, and if it doesn’t, we’ll try the next Congress.”

Debate over the bill’s “card check” or “secret ballot” provision has dominated both sides’ campaigns. The bill’s main section would effectively rewrite U.S. law so that workers would no longer be required to use a secret ballot when voting on whether to unionize.

If the legislation becomes law, workers could form unions as long as a majority of employees sign cards designating a labor group as their bargaining representative. Business groups charge that such an open system with no secret ballot would allow union supporters to bully and intimidate workers into joining unions. Union representatives counter that the present system allows employers to get rid of union organizers and threaten and intimidate workers into voting against forming a union.

But the two sides do agree that the bill would generally make it easier for workers to unionize, which could have enormous implications in the political world. Organized labor is a consistent financial backer of Democratic campaigns.

The House bill includes two other contentious sections besides the card-check provision, and some business sources say they could accept them only if the Senate removed the card-check section. According to the Chamber’s Josten, one of those is a provision requiring that employees and employer go to binding arbitration if they cannot agree on a contract through mediation. That idea is as bad and onerous to business as the card-check rule, Josten said.

The other disputed section of the bill would impose stiff civil penalties, up to $20,000, on employers who commit unfair labor practices while the initial collective bargaining contract is being negotiated.

One group that has taken aim at the binding-arbitration provision is the National Association of Manufacturers, which warns that some members may not even be aware of key parts of the bill.

“There are members of Congress who aren’t fully up to speed on the bill,” said Jason Straczewski, the group’s director of human resources policy. He said his group is sending the message that the binding-arbitration provision is just as much of a problem as the card-check measure.

Meanwhile, Ross said the AFL-CIO would oppose moving through a bill with only parts of H.R. 800, especially if that means the removal of the card-check provision. She said the three sections of the bill are intertwined and meant to act together. Stripping the card-check provision from the bill would therefore help defeat the bill’s purpose.

Speaking from the opposite side, a business source also said that it would make sense for labor to demand that the entire bill be approved. That would hurt the bill’s chances of final passage in both chambers, after which labor might ease its position and support moving only a stripped-down bill, the source explained.