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August 20, 2014

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Analysis:

Card check might be yielding to other goals

Big labor bill appears to be in flux as Democrats try to gain filibuster-proof support

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TIFFANY BROWN / LAS VEGAS SUN FILE

D. Taylor of the Culinary Union says he hopes chard check, which his union has used successfully, is in the final labor bill.

Prominent local and national labor leaders pushed back on news last week that a group of U.S. senators had dropped a key provision from a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize.

The New York Times reported Friday that six Democrats, led by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, agreed to scrap the so-called card-check provision of the Employee Free Choice Act to win a filibuster-proof 60 votes from moderate members of their own party.

Andy Stern, president of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union, disputed the account, saying the bill was simply “going through the usual legislative process” and that his union expected card check to surface intact in the final bill.

D. Taylor, head of the 55,000-member Culinary Union in Las Vegas, dismissed the Times report as speculation and said he hopes card check will survive Senate negotiations.

Under card check, employers agree to recognize a union once a majority of workers sign cards signifying their support for the union. Current labor law gives employers the right to demand a secret-ballot election, a process labor advocates say unions have all but forsaken because it is so heavily tilted toward management.

Lost in the card-check debate, however, is another, more controversial provision considered critical by big labor — and toxic by the business community: binding arbitration.

As written, the legislation would impose arbitration in contract negotiations if the union and the employer cannot agree on a pact within 120 days.

The Workforce Fairness Institute, a coalition of business groups fighting the bill, blasted news of the reported compromise Monday, suggesting the revised bill was a Trojan horse.

“Any U.S. Senator who gets tricked into voting for cloture on this so-called ‘compromise’ will have to answer to their constituents for letting the fox into the henhouse,” said Katie Packer, the group’s executive director. “Union bosses have made it abundantly clear that they are willing to do anything to get 60 votes.”

The arbitration provision is important to labor because winning recognition in a workplace is often only half the battle.

According to Cornell University labor researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner, two years after voting for union representation a third of workers still lack a contract. Experts say the lack of a financial penalty is an incentive for hostile employers to delay talks. Under the law, guilty parties are merely told to return to the table and negotiate in good faith.

So far, the business community has focused on card check, mounting an aggressive public relations campaign focused on the secret ballot. The argument that card check is undemocratic won over several moderate Democrats, including Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, who spoke out against the provision.

But killing card check — if it is, in fact, dead — is hardly the end of labor law revision.

According to the Times report, senators are considering other moves in exchange for dropping card check. Among the rumored changes: allowing union organizers access to workplaces and barring employers from requiring employees to attend “captive audience” meetings.

The legislators are also considering faster elections, the report said. Under an expected revision, union elections would be held within five or 10 days after 30 percent of workers sign union cards, instead of the current time frame of two months.

Harkin spokeswoman Bergen Kenny declined to comment on specifics of the negotiations, saying, “We’re still working on the bill and we think we’re making progress.”

The AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor federation, seemed to suggest it would be amenable to a compromise.

Spokeswoman Amaya Tune said the federation isn’t taking a strict view of the bill as written, instead focusing on what she called the legislation’s overall goals: “give employees a fair choice and make it easier for them to form a union, win a process to get a fair contract, impose penalties for employers who harass and intimidate workers.”

She added: “We’ve realized here that while the current bill would be the best-case scenario, it often doesn’t work like that in Congress.”

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