WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked organized labor's top legislative priority this year -- a bill designed to make it easier for unions to organize workers at nonunion workplaces.
No issue splits the parties more starkly than those involving organized labor, and this vote was no exception: Democrats and two independents stood behind labor, and among the Republicans, only Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania broke ranks.
The resulting tally -- 51-48 -- left the Democrats nine votes short of the 60 they needed to cut off debate in the Senate and bring the bill to a vote.
Unions and their supporters in Congress, deploring the outcome, portrayed the bill as pitting the middle class against the rich.
"The vote made clear exactly who is on the side of working families' dreams and economic opportunity -- and who is siding with corporate America to block those opportunities," said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney.
Business groups, by contrast, said the fundamental issue involved the right to secret ballots.
"Secret ballots protect the rights of the individual and prevent coercion, and that's worth fighting to preserve," said Tom Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who lobbied against the bill across the country.
The House passed the bill, 241-185, on March 1. The number in favor was 43 votes fewer than the two-thirds necessary to override the veto expected from President Bush.
The bill would have required employers to recognize unions if more than half of eligible workers signed union cards. Under a law dating back 60 years, employers who are presented with union cards from a majority of their employees may demand an election by secret ballot -- a procedure designed to prevent coercion of workers by unions.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said there was good reason for this safeguard.
"The secret ballot has been standard everywhere else in this country for more than a century," he said. "It simply hasn't been questioned. Americans have come to assume that in everything from electing their high school yearbook editor to their president, their vote is sacred and it is secret."
He said the bill the Senate derailed Tuesday was written to help not workers, but union bosses, who have watched helplessly as union membership in the United States has plunged, according to the Census Bureau, from 23% of the workforce in 1983 to under 14% in 2005.
Under the bill, McConnell said, workers would be exposed to "coercion and intimidation by employers and union bosses alike."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a sponsor of the bill, argued that a rise in incomes of the rich -- and a simultaneous drop in the well-being of the poor -- coincided with a decline in union membership. He said that for the first time in American history, thanks to unions' loss of bargaining power, the earning power of young men today was less than that of their fathers' at the same age.
Giving unions the authority to organize workers on the strength of cards signed by workers, Kennedy said, would merely level a playing field that has been tilted by union organizers' lack of access to workers at the same time that "the employer has access to these individuals all day long."
Democrats, noting that a majority in the House and the Senate had now voted for the bill, vowed not to let it die.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said: "Republican senators have shown once again that they do not understand the very real economic concerns of America's middle-class families. They continue to vote for the special interests and against American workers."