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Election result rekindles card-check debate

The honeymoon for President-elect Barack Obama has already ended locally on one issue.

When members of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce’s government affairs committee met Thursday morning, the Obama-supported Employee Free Choice Act proved a hot topic.

The proposed federal law would replace secret-ballot unionizing elections with face-to-face card-check procedures, and both unions and businesses agree it would make organizing workers easier than it is today.

“We’re really worried about the way the law is written,” said Steve Hill, a member of the committee who’s also incoming chamber chairman and president and chief executive officer of concrete company Silver State Materials. “It has not reached the level of attention it needs. It’s been discussed and killed (in Congress), and people don’t know it’s still out there. We need to do a better job getting word out that it’s a possibility, and tell businesses what it means to them.”

Nevada-based representatives of the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union didn’t return calls seeking comment Friday. But union officials have argued that current organizing rules allow employers to intimidate workers seeking union representation. They say a card-check policy, through which organizers would ask staffers to sign a card voting for unionization, would make it easier for workers to sign up for a labor group.

The law’s detractors say eliminating secret ballots would subject employees to harassment and intimidation by union organizers.

They’re also concerned about a provision in the law that would force a contract into binding arbitration after six months if an employer and a union can’t agree on a deal’s terms.

Observers don’t agree on just how likely the law’s passage is, but prominent pollster Frank Luntz said the act enjoys decent prospects in the new, more-Democratic Congress. Also, a key barrier in the Oval Office will fall in January, when President Bush, who promised to veto the legislation if it reached his desk, cedes his post to Obama, who co-sponsored the law.

Luntz, in town Thursday to address members of the chamber, placed 50-50 odds on the bill’s passage. And that handicap worries him.

“I’m afraid for employees if it passes,” Luntz said. “The level of intimidation and coercion would be unprecedented. Workers are about to lose their most important right (a secret vote). I’m very angry with the business community for not saying more about it.”

Perhaps the Employee Free Choice Act left businesspeople’s radar because it’s been more than a year since Congress addressed it.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill in March 2007. Once it reached the Senate, the act netted 51 votes — a majority but not enough yeas to overcome a Republican-led filibuster against the law.

It’s languished since, waiting for a stronger, filibuster-proof bloc in the Senate and a president willing to sign off on it.

After Tuesday’s election, the Senate’s composition still hangs in the balance. Democrats went from 49 seats to 55 seats, with three races awaiting recounts or runoffs for conclusive results.

Should the law survive the Senate, it will find a friendly reception at the White House. Obama told the Chicago Tribune in March 2007 that “we will pass the Employee Free Choice Act. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

One Nevada legislator supports the measure.

U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., cosponsored the Employee Free Choice Act and voted for the bill when it came before the House.

David Cherry, Berkley’s communications director, said in a statement that Berkley “supports the legislation as a means to prevent intimidation of those seeking to organize in their workplace.”

Cherry also said the bill could soon become law.

“Given the large number of votes that the bill received in both the House and Senate, the odds would seem to favor its passage in the next Congress,” he said.

Hugh Anderson, chairman of the chamber’s government affairs committee, said his group plans to educate the public on “how mislabeled the act is.”

Maintaining secret elections is especially important in a battered economy heavy on low-skill service jobs, Anderson said.

The service workers who labor inside local resorts don’t have many employment options in today’s economic climate. That makes them especially vulnerable to coercion.

Businesses could thwart the law with a public relations campaign using carefully chosen words to counter the bill’s title, Luntz said.

“Why do you call it the Employee Free Choice Act? You mean ‘card-check,'” Luntz said. “It’s not free choice. It’s about your right to vote for or against unions by a secret ballot. It’s one of the most sacred rights in America.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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