Friday, Nov. 7, 2008 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — A national association of concrete company executives gathered two months before Tuesday’s election in an ornate room off the Senate floor to meet with Republican Sen. John Ensign.
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The Nevada lawmaker laid out a grim picture of what would happen if Congress approved and the president signed a labor-backed bill making it easier for unions to organize in the workplace. The legislation had not enjoyed enough support to pass the current Senate, but would surely return in future sessions of Congress.
Ensign, who headed Republican election efforts in the Senate, regarded the Employee Free Choice Act his No. 1 tool in raising money important to candidates in a handful of close races across the country.
The act was becoming part of those campaigns. Unions were spending tens of millions of dollars to promote the legislation, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others were just as furiously spending money against.
Ensign made no direct appeal for financial help that morning two months ago, but the message was clear. The bill was bad for business and as union membership swelled, the law would be bad for the Republican Party in Washington.
“Unions don’t spend money to elect Republicans,” Ensign told the concrete execs. “They spend money to elect Democrats. From our perspective, this would have devastating consequences.”
Tuesday, six Democratic Senate candidates who support the bill won their elections. (Other key races remained undecided.)
A poll of 942 voters in Senate battleground states taken Nov. 2-4 and released Thursday by American Rights at Work, an advocacy group, showed just three Republican voters said they were voting against the Democratic candidate because of the union issue.
Now, with Democrats enjoying greater numbers in the Senate, unions and their allies see passage of the bill as a top priority. President-elect Barack Obama has said he supports the bill. President Bush does not.
The bill would allow unions to form if a majority of the employees agree by signing their names to a card. Current law says company owners can require an election. Unions say elections can take months to organize, enabling managers to intimidate workers before voting begins.
But businesses argue that doing away with the secret ballot, and simply allowing workers to sign their names to a card, will allow union bosses to twist arms outside the privacy of the voting booth. Ensign calls it “un-American.”
Unions, including those on the Strip, think the bill will enable workers to organize with less interference from company executives. The Las Vegas experience suggests they are correct.
The Mirage was the first Las Vegas casino that struck an agreement with the Culinary Union that represents Strip workers for this kind of organizing, and most other Strip operators have followed suit.
Even with greater numbers of Democrats in the Senate, a few Republicans would still be needed to cross over to pass the bill. Last year only one Republican did so.
“We must pass the Employee Free Choice Act,” Tom Woodruff of Change to Win, a coalition of major unions, said in a statement Thursday. “Corporations and CEOs have used their tremendous power to threaten, coerce, intimidate and fire workers for trying to form a union.”
Steve Smith, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, said the union is retaining its teams of election workers in such states as Minnesota, where Senate races remains undecided, to push for the bill’s passage.
“We’re obviously going to be mounting a strong campaign,” Smith said.
Chamber President Thomas Donohue foreshadowed the brutal battle ahead.
“We do not want that to become law,” Donohue said Thursday.
The chamber thinks its campaign in the battleground states elevated the issue among voters, and it too has resources to continue the fight. Its own statistics show 7 percent of Americans are aware of the union issue, compared with as many as 30 percent in battleground Senate states where ads were shown.
“We are well prepared,” Donohue warned. “It’s not going to be a walk in the park.”