Sunday, July 27, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Sen. John Ensign may have found the perfect tool for his almost Herculean task of defending Senate Republicans in November: unions — or, more accurately, fear of them.
Ensign, Nevada’s junior senator and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has been using Big Labor’s top legislative priority, a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize, as a rallying point in a fight whose objective, he concedes, is to minimize Republican losses.
The bill, dubbed the Employee Free Choice Act, would allow workers to unionize a workplace through majority sign-up or “card check” instead of putting the issue to a secret-ballot vote. It would also stiffen penalties for employers who commit unfair labor practices during an organizing drive and impose binding arbitration in bargaining cases in which the sides cannot agree.
The legislation would likely usher in the largest unionization drive since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.
“It’s our No. 1 issue to raise money on,” Ensign said last week. “It scares anybody who’s in business to death.”
Indeed, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson told The Wall Street Journal the union-backed bill was “one of the two fundamental threats to society.” (The other, he said, was radical Islam.)
Ensign has plenty of help. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Freedom’s Watch, an independent group financed in large part by Adelson, among others, have launched multimillion-dollar offensives against the card check legislation, calling it “un-American,” something that, as one chamber official put it, would “Europeanize the American workforce.”
Opponents are casting the bill as an attempt by labor and its Democratic allies to strip workers of the right to a secret ballot. Card check, they say, would allow organizers to intimidate workers into signing union cards and “turn back the clock on our economy.”
“The fact that Democrats would be willing to take (secret ballots) away from workers and call it free choice, we just want Americans to see how far left the Democratic Party has come,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican. “This is a good, simple example for people to see. Some of the things like the Fannie Mae bailout are so complex. Secret ballot, people understand.”
The Chamber of Commerce points to a national poll it conducted showing 85 percent of voters oppose “the elimination of secret ballots in union elections.” But such polls rarely provide the context of a labor-management campaign, where a worker’s livelihood can literally be on the line.
Unions complain the election process favors employers because they can campaign against the union and, assisted by high-priced “union avoidance” consultants, use mandatory informational meetings, among other tools, to threaten and intimidate workers.
Because labor law prescribes minimal penalties for employer violations, labor experts say, management is all but encouraged to identify union sympathizers, often firing them to snuff out the momentum of an organizing drive well before the matter is put to a vote. Even when workers vote and win, employers can challenge the result or bargain to an impasse with the union. Either way, appeals are often bogged down for years in a Byzantine legal process.
For those reasons, the 60,000-strong Culinary Union in Las Vegas has abandoned elections, opting instead to negotiate voluntary card check agreements with the major casino companies, including the one once run by Ensign’s father, Mandalay Resort Group. The proposed bill would require that employers recognize unions under that kind of organizing. (Workers would still have the option of a secret ballot.)
Labor has public support, but although the card check legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House last year, it went down in the Senate, 51-48, largely along party lines. Democrats need 60 votes to advance the measure in that body, which means its prospects hinge on the Nov. 4 election.
And that’s why John Ensign is beating the anti-union drum as loudly as he can.
Sun Washington correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this story.