WASHINGTON — The shrinking economy is the top issue on voters' minds with the presidential election days away, but the topic of greatest interest to the nation's largest employers is getting scant attention. There's virtually no talk about a proposal to end secret balloting in union-organizing drives.
Few issues rile big employers more than the expected revival of the proposed Employee Free Choice Act. Unions say that the legislation is necessary to unshackle millions of workers who want to organize but are unable to do so, while big employers fear that it would dramatically raise the cost of doing business.
The act, which passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate in June 2007, would update the nation's labor laws and end a long-standing practice of secret balloting that dates to 1935 and the National Labor Relations Act.
Instead of voting in secret in a federally supervised election to determine whether to unionize, under the new proposal employees could unionize simply by collecting signatures from more than half the workers at a business.
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Labor and management couldn't be farther apart in how they view the legislation, co-sponsored in Congress by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic presidential nominee, and opposed by his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Unions think that employers have the upper hand now because the current structure gives them time to use their money, influence and pressure to prevent workers from seeking union representation.
"The current system is just unfairly tilted in the employer's favor," said Jacob Hay, a spokesman for the Laborers' International Union of North America, which represents workers in construction trades. "The balance of power is tilted towards them."
Trade groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, which represent employers, argue that there's a balance now and that changing it will give an advantage to labor.
"This is definitely NAM's top issue," said Keith Smith, the director of employment and labor policy for the manufacturers group. "We don't look at this as just a labor relations issue. We see this as a competitiveness issue, because it is a game changer."
Steven Law, chief counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that his members feared that ending secret balloting in favor of what unions called "card check" was an invitation for strong-arm tactics.
"Our view is that union elections ought to be decided in the privacy of a voting booth and not in the parking lot late at night," Law said. "And if card check gets passed, that is where union elections will be decided. It opens the door to all kinds of harassment and intimidation."
After more than two decades of declining membership that's left just 12 percent of the work force unionized, organized labor thinks that a Democratic president and Congress could make it easier to organize and fight for higher wages after eight years of flat wage growth and widening income inequality.
Behind the trade associations are big retailers such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and manufacturers that oppose union representation, and they fear that next week's election could bring an end to secret balloting.
The Employee Free Choice Act passed the House in part because lawmakers were sure that it didn't have the 60 votes needed in the Senate to cut off debate and go to a vote.
"A lot of members voted for the card check bill last time thinking it was a throwaway vote, and now they face the possibility of being held accountable by voters and the unions," Law said.
In an interview on CNBC television Wednesday, McCain said he'd veto the card check legislation "in a New York minute." Employers, however, are perplexed about why McCain hasn't championed this topic — a core Republican issue — more stridently.
"We're disappointed and surprised that the issue has not got more attention across the board. . . . This is an issue that has been flying under the radar screen, and businesses are going to be shocked that this legislation now has a good chance of passing," said Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to McCain and President Bush who now works with the Workforce Fairness Institute, a coalition that's lobbying against the change.
Thea Lee, chief economist for the AFL-CIO, suggests that the answer lies in the fact that McCain's election strategy depends on winning blue-collar workers, who are more likely to be pro-union. McCain, she said, doesn't want to call attention to the issue.
"Look at the states where he has been competing: Ohio, Pennsylvania. I guess he's not in Michigan anymore," Lee said.
According to the AFL-CIO, McCain has supported the labor group's causes just 16 percent of the time.
"It's something a lot of union members don't know. . . . If they did they'd have a different image of him being a maverick," Lee said.
Another possible explanation for why McCain hasn't gone after Obama more forcefully on the card check issue is the fact that his running mate's husband, Todd Palin, is a member of the United Steelworkers Union, which supports card check.
In an interview in late September after her surprise addition to the Republican ticket, Sarah Palin told conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt that she and her husband once had depended on "good union jobs" when they were younger.
"We've gone through periods of our life here with paying out of pocket for health coverage until Todd and I both landed a couple of good union jobs," Palin told Hewitt. "Early on in our marriage, we didn't have health insurance, and we had to either make the choice of paying out of pocket for catastrophic coverage or just crossing our fingers, hoping that nobody would get hurt, nobody would get sick."
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