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WASHINGTON -- The National Grocers Association (NGA) was among the business groups applauding last week's announcement by Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who said he would oppose a bill to make it easier for workers to unionize.
Democrats were counting on the liberal Republican to cross party lines and support the measure.
The bill, formally called the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) but commonly referred to as "card check" legislation and backed by President Barack Obama, would give workers the choice of either signing a petition (card) or by holding a secret-ballot election. However, critics point out that unions would have no reason to seek a secret-ballot election—supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—when they could more easily gather signatures on a petition. Currently, employers can require a NLRB-supervised secret ballot.
The bill's critics also noted unions could bully workers into signing a petition and that a secret ballot is a tenet of democracy.
Backers of the legislation however, argue companies have undermined elections in the past with threats against workers, anti-union campaigns and lengthy delays.
Specter, who is preparing to run for re-election in 2010, has been lobbied hard by both union and business interests.
According to NGA, "the Senator’s announcement closes the door at this time on Senate consideration of S. 560 by preventing Democrats from achieving the 60 votes necessary to proceed to consideration of the union backed bill. Senator Specter’s vote would make 41 Republicans against."
NGA President and CEO Tom Zaucha said, "Senator Specter is to be commended for exercising his independent judgment, and NGA’s members fully agree that to eliminate the private ballot, to enact one-sided onerous and punitive measures against employers during organizing campaigns, and to impose mandatory arbitration are not acceptable.
Union proponents of EFCA have made it clear any compromise alternative to EFCA is unacceptable. It can be expected their ongoing labor reform efforts, to tilt the playing field, will continue to the disadvantage of employees and employers."
Jay Krupin, partner in Epstein, Becker & Green, and NGA’s labor relation counsel, said, "This legislation has been flawed from its inception. Senator Specter's decision is a welcome measure to prevent the passage of this harmful and draconian attempt to change federal labor laws. The private ballot process is the only democratic and appropriate procedure for employees to determine whether they wish to be represented by a union. Having lived in the trenches for more than 30 years representing food service, grocery and hospitality industry employers successfully defeating union organizing attempts, there is no doubt that a ‘card check only’ process will lead to increased union activity of coercion, intimidation and interference with employee rights to organize. The Employee Free Choice Act provides no ‘free choice’ at all, and modifying the NLRA in any other form will not advance the purpose of the act, which is to protect employees and not unions."
Senate Democratic supporters of EFCA refused to concede defeat, however, and are expected to continue efforts to "turn" another Republican senator over to their side.
Specter did acknowledge changes are needed in labor laws to make sure union elections are fair, however, he said the recession makes it "a particularly bad time" to enact the bill, noting employers warn it could lead to more job cuts.
Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Health, Education and Labor Committee, said, "It's disappointing Sen. Specter feels he cannot support the Employee Free Choice Act in its current form, but I welcome his recognition of the urgent need for labor law reform."
"I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find the best way to move forward with this important legislation," Kennedy said.
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