WASHINGTON — In the Ozark Mountain town of Rogers, Ark., more than 250 business owners gathered for lunch at a construction company last month to focus on what they saw as a major threat -- a proposal in Congress to make it easier to form labor unions.
At each place setting, attendees found pre-stamped postcards and pre-written letters to be sent to Arkansas' U.S. senators, Democrats Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, who had supported the labor bill in the past. After lunch, the business owners were ushered to computers to send e-mail messages as well.
Five days later came the good news: Two Senate votes had been stripped from the pro-union bill. Lincoln said she would oppose it outright, while Pryor declared the current version "dead" and said he would look for compromises.
Today, thanks to those and other defections, key components of the bill are in serious jeopardy. And the legislation has produced one of the biggest surprises in Washington since Democrats swept the White House and Congress: The nation's labor unions, which organized so effectively last year to help elect President Obama, have been outmaneuvered so far on their top priority by their opponents in the business community.
"We were outspent, outhustled and outorganized," said one chagrined union advisor who was not authorized to speak by name.
"The legislation is severely challenged," said John Wilhelm, hospitality president of Unite Here -- the textile, hotel and culinary workers' union. "The unified business community has been so strident about the issue, they have effectively achieved solidarity among Republican senators."
The labor movement, somewhat divided, he said, has let Democratic support drift away.
No legislation is more important to the unions than the Employee Free Choice Act, which would ease the rules for forming bargaining units and, union leaders believe, help the depleted labor movement gain new members. Under its core provisions, unions could start a new bargaining unit at a company if a majority of workers simply signed cards requesting one, a process known as "card check."
The new system would eliminate the company's option to call for secret ballot elections, which union officials have long argued give companies the ability to manipulate and intimidate workers before a unionization vote.
Businesses fear that card check would leave workers vulnerable to coercion by union officials.
Organized labor believed it could push card check into law.
In 2007, the measure passed the House and gained more than 40 cosponsors in the Senate. Now, with even more Democrats in the Senate and Obama in the White House, the unions saw the odds in their favor. Obama's campaign stump speech last fall included strong support for the legislation.
But once he was elected, labor leaders made a fateful decision. Originally, they had planned to keep in place their extensive network of field organizers, who had just worked to elect Democratic candidates, and ask them to build pressure on lawmakers to vote for card check.
Instead, they changed course. The labor groups scaled back, partly to give Obama time to get his bearings amid the deepening economic crisis.
Business groups, meanwhile, had started work well before the election and did not stop. They feared that card check would lead to new unions and higher labor costs. Opponents included retailers, such as Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, as well as restaurant chains, construction firms and hotels.
More than 500 business and conservative organizations had formed the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace to coordinate an array of trade associations and other groups fighting card check. Since 2007, the umbrella group has spent as much as $10 million. Its members include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which on its own earmarked $20 million in 2008 and 2009 to defeat card check, on top of $35 million to elect business-friendly lawmakers in 2008.
Half a dozen other groups backed by corporate, GOP or conservative ideological interests have also joined the fray.
Before labor groups had fully engaged this winter, the allied business groups successfully cast the legislation as undemocratic: How could Congress oppose secret-ballot elections? They also hired well-connected lobbyists. For example, Wal-Mart, one of the nation's largest employers and a staunch foe of unionization efforts, deployed Lincoln's former chief of staff, as well as Pryor's former legislative director.
But the most important part of the business strategy was coaxing thousands of small companies to pressure their lawmakers, particularly moderate Democratic senators such as Lincoln and Pryor.
Soon, Democrats were complaining at their weekly caucus meetings of being whipsawed by the powerful lobbying on both sides. The issue seemed to be everywhere. Even at a meeting on agriculture, one Lincoln aide recalled, card check would be raised prominently.
When it came to key senators, business interests outmuscled labor.