Union proposal brings division

Three Nevada lawmakers co-sponsored a key piece of federal labor legislation introduced Tuesday, as local unions and business groups lined up to take sides on the bill.

The Employee Free Choice Act made its latest appearance before Congress despite speculation among labor experts that the struggling economy would delay its consideration until at least late 2009.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada signed on to the bill, as did Reps. Shelley Berkley and Dina Titus, both Democrats representing Las Vegas districts.

Local members of the Service Employees International Union happened to be in Washington Tuesday on a trip they planned weeks ago. They attended hearings and met with some of the state’s congressional delegates.

“Oh my goodness, I’m just way more excited than I thought I’d ever be coming here, just knowing that we have the support of our representatives,” said Fredo Serrano, an SEIU Nevada member and a registered nurse at Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas. “I think it’s a great time for us, and a great opportunity for workers. I’m excited for the country.”

Business groups expressed less enthusiasm.

Cara Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, called the act a “job-killing piece of legislation” that would allow labor groups to unionize companies on the sly and effectively lock employers out of the bargaining process.

“This is a bad bill in the best of economic times, but it’s disastrous during a bad economy,” Roberts said. “Businesses are already struggling to keep their doors open and their employees employed.”

The Employee Free Choice Act would change federal rules, which call for unions to win a secret-ballot election before they can organize a workplace. Under the proposed law, unions could claim representation if they convince a simple majority of workers to sign cards seeking organization. The law includes no limits on when and where unions could ask workers to sign cards, and it forces both sides into binding arbitration if no contract emerges within four months of the beginning of negotiations.

Some business groups and labor experts decry card-check procedures, because they remove workers’ anonymity. That lack of privacy could subject employees to intimidation and harassment by union organizers hungry for new members, Roberts said. And because organizing could happen off-site, an employer could find himself unionized without any warning. The law could be a major drag on smaller companies, Roberts said: Seventy percent of the country’s 2,600 secret-ballot elections in 2005 involved companies with fewer than 50 employees.

For union members, the act provides a chance to balance a system that gives an overwhelming edge to corporations seeking to quash representation. Union membership fell steeply in the last two decades, from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 12.1 percent in 2007, according to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Nevada, 15.4 percent of workers belong to unions, down from 20.4 percent in 1997. Organizers blame the slide on a chilling effect that they say kicks in when corporations demote or fire a few high-profile, pro-union employees. They also say corporations don’t campaign fairly during run-ups to secret-ballot elections.

“It never was a fair secret ballot,” Serrano said. “The employer has always had more access to employees. We want to make the process fairer, and level out the playing field.”

It’s not the first time Congress has considered card-check legislation.

The Employee Free Choice Act came before Congress in 2007 and nearly became law, sailing through the House and winning a majority of votes in the Senate. It couldn’t survive a Republican filibuster.

Business leaders say the latest chapter in the bill’s story hints at erosion of support even among labor-friendly Democrats in Congress.

Tuesday’s version of the act had 223 co-sponsors, down from the 230 who signed onto the bill as supporters in 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce noted. And the number of senators co-sponsoring the proposed law dropped from 47 in 2007 to 40 Tuesday. That drop in co-sponsors happened despite November’s gains in the number of Democratic lawmakers.

Steven Law, general counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the drop in sponsors proved that lawmakers “aren’t just getting cold feet on card check — they’re getting frostbite.”

But dwindling co-sponsorship didn’t indicate faltering support for the act, Serrano countered. Rather, it means “there are just some questions that still have to be answered.”

Reid said Tuesday he thought Democrats could gain the 60 votes necessary to pass the bill.

Under an agreement between Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the Senate will vote first, then the House, Reid said.

At this point the Senate vote is expected to be close, with a handful of Democrats from right to work states like Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas and Nebraska expected to bear the brunt of lobbying from both sides in the coming months.

If Republicans “would cooperate with us just a little bit,” Reid said the Senate could vote before recessing for its summer break in August. If not, Reid said the vote would be delayed into September.

Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign and Rep. Dean Heller plan to vote against it.

“I will not rest until this bill is dead,” Ensign said. “Liberal Democrats have been waiting for an opportunity to pay back the unions and now the unions’ number one demand… is finally here.”

Ensign said the Senate vote will be “a very tough vote for Democrats who are from right-to-work states as it is such a damaging bill, I believe, to our economy. But from a political standpoint the unions are the biggest contributors to Democrats.”

Democratic leaders hinted Tuesday that compromise may be needed to get wavering lawmakers on board.

The Democrats insisted they are not losing support, but acknowledged that some changes might be needed.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a lead sponsor of the bill, said his colleagues are talking about “certain modifications,” but no agreement has been reached.

“There might be some amendments that don’t destroy the underpinnings of the bill, maybe provide for better enforcement,” Harkin said. “That type of thing might be acceptable.”

Harkin predicted Congress would take up the act shortly after the Easter recess. That’s likely when Minnesota Democrat Al Franken would be seated if he wins a recount battle with Republican Norm Coleman. Franken could be the deciding vote.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512. Review-Journal reporter Steve Tetrault and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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