Business and Labor square off on bills

Business and labor lobbies square off this week over a House measure that would make it easier for workers to form unions, which have struggled for years with declining membership.

The Democratic-dominated House is expected to pass the Employee Free Choice Act on Thursday — a legislative victory for labor in a body that business interests dominated during the 12-year Republican reign.

But House Democrats and their labor allies face the same  problem House Republicans and their big-business friends faced: the Senate filibuster. As a result, the bill has much tougher chances in the Senate than House. The administration is another obstacle. President Bush has indicated he will veto the bill if it arrives on his desk.

Despite these factors, business interests are still nervous as they face the new political reality on Capitol Hill. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Manufacturers Association and other business groups have formed a new coalition to oppose the measure.

“The concern is widespread in the business community,” said Jade West, a lobbyist for the National Association of Wholesalers-Distributors, one of the business groups lobbying against the bill. West described it as a “monumental shift” in how unions are organized.

With 234 cosponsors, the measure is expected to pass in the House. But business groups are trying to keep the margin of victory relatively small to build momentum for the real battle in the Senate. West describes herself as “relatively comfortable, not overconfident” that the legislation’s supporters will not find the 60 votes needed to deny a filibuster.

The lobbying strategy of big business has focused in particular on the measure’s provision that negates the need for a “secret ballot” for workers to register anonymously their position on whether to unionize.

Such a provision may sound undemocratic. But labor groups argue that businesses exploit the secret ballot to delay and frustrate organizing. In addition, employers can mount expensive campaigns before the day of the vote, and they have more access to workers than labor leaders often do.

Under the House bill, a union would be certified if a majority of workers openly sign union cards. That can happen now, but the employer has the right to either accept the cards outright or require that workers vote again in a secret ballot.

Another bone of contention is a provision that would introduce a third-party arbiter to manage the collective-bargaining process if business and labor have not reached compromise after 120 days of negotiation.

Labor groups argue that foot-dragging by employers can delay an agreement for years. But West said the third-party arbiter would have too much power. For example, it could introduce new rules that neither the union nor the employer had contemplated, West said.

The bill would also increase the financial penalties if employers try to intimidate workers from joining a union. Labor groups say such penalties are a key piece of the bill: “There are numerous examples of workers [who are] denied a fair right to organize,” said Stephanie Mueller, a spokeswomen for the Service Employees International Union.

Fewer and fewer workers are members of a union these days. In 2006, 12 percent of employed wage and salary workers were unionized, down from 12.5 percent the year before, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The actual number of union workers fell by 326,000 to 15.4 million in 2006. In 1983, more than 20 percent of workers were union members.

If business interests lose the union vote, they may score a win with another measure in the House. On Wednesday, the body will take up a measure to update the rules governing the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS), which was obscure until a company called Dubai Ports World made a bid last year to oversee American ports.

That sparked a push to toughen federal reviews of deals involving foreign investments as well as dozens of press conferences and media appearances featuring outraged lawmakers. In the end, though, the 109th Congress was unable to deliver a bill. Congress will try again this year, and business interests hope this time it will succeed.

CFIUS is charged with reviewing foreign investment deals with national-security implications. While the pending bill has the potential to make reviews more stringent — for example, by requiring an additional 45-day review if the purchaser is owned or controlled by a foreign government — business believes the bill will reduce the political sensitivity that surrounds foreign investment.

“It’s a good product,” said Todd Malan, the president and CEO of the Organization for International Investment.

Last year, the GOP-governed House agreed. It passed a similar measure on suspension (that is, with no amendments), with nary a “no” vote. This year, it is expected to come to the floor under an open rule. Accordingly, there is some concern on K Street that members like Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) or John Murtha (D-Pa.) could add amendments to alter the measure significantly. But most believe this is unlikely, even though negotiations were continuing at press time.

The measure now “threads the needle,” Malan said, when it comes to encouraging foreign investment while balancing national-security concerns.

In this case, business interests fear rather than welcome the role that the Senate could play. The Senate took up its CFIUS bill shortly after the Dubai issue broke last year and passed a tougher measure than the House. Several key Democrats told The Hill two weeks ago they favored their original bill.