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Not now on card check

Some might recall that I wound up in the fine conservative town of Fort Smith, Ark., shortly before the election to address the local chamber of commerce.

I got pigeon-holed at the bar by old boys with Baldor Electric. That’s an international giant in the manufacture of electric motors that maintains its headquarters in Fort Smith.

These front-office fellows sounded the alarm about “card check,” or the “Employee Freedom of Choice Act.” As is so often the case in modern politics, sentiment dictates nomenclature.

This is the bill unions covet so they may impose a union on a work force if more than half the employees sign a card. Unions went to the mat this year for Barack Obama and Democratic congressional candidates. Now they want their reward.

This is the bill management genuinely seems to fear as doomsday. It says the measure will make it harder for those who provide jobs and that it will do so with disastrous timing, at the very point the nation’s economy so teeters on collapse that the government has had to provide quasi-socialistic bailouts.

Denied a secret-ballot election, workers will be strong-armed by unions to sign these cards, management says.

Unions counter that management wants to keep that 40-day interim between the calling of an election and the secret-ballot vote to strong-arm workers with the implicit or explicit threat of a loss of jobs altogether if unions come in.

Unions say accurately that the Bush administration has tilted the playing field to management, which says that, even if that’s so, Obama mustn’t overcompensate.

I promised the Baldor fellows I’d get back with them. I’ve now met with senior management. I’ve toured a plant. I’ve crammed on the issue.

I essentially took a position the other day, though I finessed it through U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.

I wrote of her being on the spot, a Democrat needing to oblige a party payoff to labor, but one from an anti-union McCain state where she’ll stand for election in two years.

I quoted her as saying the wiser course — the better way to help both employers and employees — would be to begin this new administration seizing the moment on health care reform and economic stimulus and energy independence, not something immediately polarizing like card check.

I agreed.

She declined, though, to say how she’d vote, if forced, on the measure. Her neutrality got her a couple of mildly unhappy questions from a business audience the other day.

When she said she was concerned about workers, a construction company executive told her that worrying about workers was one thing, but that she shouldn’t pretend that facilitating quick-and-easy unions was helping workers.

A new administration gets defined by its beginning. Bill Clinton was in trouble from the get-go because he took the oath of office in one breath and in the next was strung out on gays in the military.

Obama likely will meet a similar fate if he begins his administration with a payoff to labor that galvanizes the business community’s fear of him.

As Lincoln advises both conveniently and wisely, he ought to prioritize smartly and strike first instead on economic stimulus, health care and energy independence. He needs to tell labor that his administration will be infinitely friendlier in terms of regulations and practices, but that card check must wait.

I am far more certain of the political wisdom of that than about which side is right. But I am reasonably confident that labor is going to have a better time of it during an Obama administration even if it still has to contend with 40-day delays before secret-ballot elections.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

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