A union challenge lies ahead

Morain is a Times staff writer.

Two months before Barack Obama is to be sworn in as president, opening salvos are being launched over what could become one of the thorniest issues his administration will face next year.

Organized labor, which spent more than $80 million to put Democrats in the White House and Congress, wants Obama to deliver on its priority: new rules to make it easier to unionize workplaces.

A union-backed organization founded by one of Obama’s economic advisors plans to start a national ad campaign today calling for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.


Obama and his vice president-elect, Joe Biden, embraced the measure in the Senate last year and on the campaign trail this year, particularly in front of union audiences. (The bill passed the House last year, but in the Senate, Republicans succeeded in blocking it because Democrats lacked the 60 votes necessary to cut off debate.)

But if the president-elect pushes for the legislation, he risks alienating business -- which also contributed heavily to his campaign and his party and will be crucial to his efforts to fix the economy and overhaul the healthcare system.

The bill would take from employers the right to decide between accepting workers’ signed union cards or demanding a secret ballot on unionization. Instead, a workplace could unionize if labor persuaded a majority of employees to sign cards -- without all employees voting.

“President-elect Obama needs to think about how much political capital he wants to put behind this,” said Glenn Spencer, a Chamber of Commerce executive who is leading the fight to kill the measure. If it is passed in Obama’s first 100 days, Spencer said, it is “going to look like a special-interest payback.”

The chamber stayed out of the presidential race but still spent $35 million on the election, much of it to try to keep Democrats from attaining the 60 Senate seats needed to block filibusters.

Organized labor’s influence has waned from the early 1950s, its height, when it represented about a third of the workforce. Now it represents about an eighth.


Paul Booth, a top official in the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, is quick to say that congressional leaders will decide when to move the bill. But he has his view: “Sooner the better. I’m quite anxious to have it come up.”

AFSCME, which had endorsed New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary, spent $50 million on the 2008 election, he estimated.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Martinez), who sponsored the bill, said that he was all but certain the measure wouldn’t be “the first bill out of the chute,” but that it was “not moving to the back of the train” either.

“Not everybody gets to go through the front door of the White House on the first day. That is just the reality of the situation,” said Miller.

From Washington to Sacramento, the measure is at the top of labor’s wish list.

Teamster lobbyist Barry Broad, a Sacramento attorney, said the future of unions hung in the balance. He was among the tens of thousands of union people who walked door to door for the Obama campaign in battleground states -- in his case in Reno.

“Unions spoke with a nearly unanimous voice: This is their No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 priority in the next administration,” said Broad, who believes quick passage is crucial. “For purely political reasons -- the longer you wait in politics the more nervous politicians become. Right now, he is enormously popular and has a mandate to make changes.”


The Service Employees International Union, the nation’s largest union, posted video of Obama on its website, making clear where he stands: “It’s time we had a president who honors organized labor, who’s walked on picket lines, who doesn’t choke on the word ‘union,’ who lets our unions do what they do best and organize our workers, and who will finally make the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land.”

SEIU reported knocking on more than 1.8 million doors, making 4.4 million phone calls and spending more than $33 million in the campaign. Its actual amount was far higher, because the union does not have to publicly disclose its spending on communications to its members.

Among beneficiaries of its money is American Rights at Work, the group that plans to start airing the commercial today.

The organization’s founder, former Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), was among the members of Obama’s transition team of economic advisors who accompanied Obama at his first postelection news conference.

“It is long past time that people who pack a lunch and punch a clock start getting a break,” Bonior said in an interview. “We need to level the playing field, and this will do that.”

The legislation could make it easier for unions to organize workers.

It would eliminate the secret-ballot elections that employers can demand under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Numerous studies by labor, academic researchers and human rights groups have found that the rules for such elections favor employers.


The secret ballot was designed to prevent unions from coercing workers.

Under the Employee Free Choice Act, instead of holding elections, organizers would gather support by persuading workers to sign union cards. When a majority agreed to join a union, the employer would be obliged to negotiate a contract.

Even when unions win, some companies delay contract talks or refuse to bargain collectively. Miller’s bill would impose penalties on employers for unfair labor practices, including triple back pay for workers who are wrongfully fired for union activities.

Miller pushed the measure in 2007, but he knew that even if Congress approved it, Bush would veto it.

“Now we are in a very different situation, and we’ll have to sit down with the new administration and with the Senate leaders and see how they want to work this,” Miller said. “That is the nature of having your administration in the White House. You now have to pay some deference to their schedule, their timing.”