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Unions hope House vote is the end of long legislative dry spell

March 02, 2007|Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — For the last dozen years, Capitol Hill hasn't been the friendliest place for organized labor. But that's changed with the new Democratic-controlled Congress, and labor is pressing its agenda.

That was apparent Thursday as the House approved a bill to make it easier to form a union -- a longtime priority of labor, an important Democratic constituency. The vote was followed by a victory celebration in the House speaker's office attended by the president of the AFL-CIO.

The Senate, meanwhile, is considering a bill to give airport screeners collective bargaining rights. Another labor priority, the first increase in the federal minimum wage in a decade, is expected to clear Congress within weeks.

"This is just the beginning," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in an interview Thursday. He listed planned labor offenses on healthcare, trade policy and an immigration overhaul.

After years of being shut out, union lobbyists say, they are being invited to meetings on Capitol Hill and asked their views on legislation.

"We were in a major defensive mode," said Charles M. Loveless, legislative director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

It will still be extremely difficult for labor to get its agenda through a narrowly divided Congress -- and past President Bush's veto pen.

What's more, the ranks of labor are dwindling nationally. About 12% of workers belong to a union. That's down from 20% in 1983 and 40% in 1955, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at UC Santa Barbara.

Unions, faced with globalization, outsourcing and illegal immigration, have become ideologically divided in ways they never were in the 1950s.

Older, industrial unions like the United Auto Workers have for the most part been fighting for labor protections from international trade, whereas the Service Employees International Union and their labor coalition, Change to Win, have focused on organizing growing segments of the workforce, such as immigrants and temporary workers.

To the extent that there is a unified labor agenda in Washington, it includes legislation to expand paid sick leave, child care, healthcare and pension protections.

Democrats have proposed new bankruptcy legislation that would protect workers' health and pension benefits. They also want to expand the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act to provide at least six weeks of paid leave for workers to care for themselves, their children or other immediate family.

Democrats also are drafting legislation to reinforce workplace safety and prevent corporations from avoiding pension obligations.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has talked about reviving a workplace safety bill that would strengthen protections for whistle-blowers and increase penalties for those who repeatedly violated workplace regulations. Kennedy also has proposed legislation that would require employers of 15 or more workers to provide seven paid sick days annually.

Democratic leaders are hoping to wring concessions from Republicans before they consider renewing Bush's trade promotion, or "fast track," authority, which expires July 1. The free-trade wing of the Democratic Party appears to be shrinking, with more legislators like Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) demanding that the administration incorporate labor protections into trade agreements.

All but three of the 42 House Democratic freshmen recently sent a letter to their leadership calling for a new direction on trade, including an end to what they describe as "job-killing agreements."

GOP leaders have indicated a willingness to compromise on trade, but they will probably oppose legislation on union organizing and workplace rights along the lines of the bill that passed the House on Thursday, 241 to 185. Unlike the federal minimum wage increase or changes to trade agreements, the proposed Employee Free Choice Act doesn't come with sweeteners for business interests.

"Senate Republicans are committed to defeating this proposal," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, promised to "work aggressively" to defeat the bill.

The legislation would certify a union as soon as a majority of workers signed cards authorizing it. Under current law, after cards are signed an employer can call for a separate secret ballot -- overseen by the National Labor Relations Board -- on whether a union should be recognized.

Republicans say the bill would let employers and union officials intimidate workers during organizing campaigns because it would change the process for union elections from a secret ballot to a card check where votes were recorded.

"We respect a worker's right to organize and to join a union, but clearly they ought to have the right to have a secret ballot election," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "We're fighting to protect workers from intimidation of any kind, whether it be from employers or from those who seek to organize them."

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) has called the proposed Employee Free Choice Act "nothing more than an attempt to pay back big labor, which helped finance Democrat campaigns across America."

But it's not necessary for unions to get legislation past Republicans, the Senate or the president's desk to score a victory with workers and middle-class voters, said Lichtenstein of UC Santa Barbara.

"Whether you pass this stuff is secondary to whether you change the conversation, and I do think that is happening," Lichtenstein said. "The Democrats understand now that labor is indeed their backbone."


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