Harkin: Kennedy’s illness stopped card-check vote back in July

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Thursday that he had the 60 Senate votes necessary in July to clear the card-check bill through the Senate.

But when he called ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) longtime doctor, he was told the lawmaker was too ill to travel to Washington and could not vote on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it easier to organize unions and is a high legislative priority for labor unions.

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“As of July, I can tell you this openly and I know the press is all here but we had worked out a pretty good agreement. Labor was at the table,” Harkin told a crowd of activists organized by American Rights at Work, a labor advocacy group. The activists are set to swarm Capitol Hill Thursday to lobby for the bill.

Harkin said prominent labor leaders were on board with the deal, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

“That’s when we needed 60 votes and that’s when I called to get Sen. Kennedy down because we needed him for three days. That’s when Dr. Horowitz told me that he couldn’t make it,” Harkin said.

Lawrence Horowitz is Kennedy’s longtime doctor and a former chief of staff to the senator, who died in August after a more than year-long battle with brain cancer.

It is unclear what the deal would have included, and Harkin declined to provide details after his remarks. Harkin has been the Senate Democrats' lead negotiator on the card-check bill.

“I will not say because it was closely held, it never leaked out and it still hasn’t,” Harkin said. “I took it off the front-burner and put it on the back-burner so it is still on warm, OK?”

Aides to Harkin previously have said every provision of the bill is up for discussion, including the possible jettisoning of a measure that would allow workers to organize by signing off on authorization cards. That gives the card-check bill its name.

The bill would eliminate the right of employers to demand that unions hold a secret-ballot election to organize a union.

Business associations have lobbied heavily against the bill, and that provision in particular, saying it would lead to union intimidation of workers and more strikes that could hurt revenue. Unions argue the present system favors employers.

Unions campaigned for EFCA last election, saying it is needed to protect workers’ rights and allow them to bargain for better wages and benefits.

Alongside healthcare reform, the bill is considered a vital part of the labor movement's legislative agenda this Congress. Centrist Democrats, however, have distanced themselves away or have outright opposed the legislation.