Business, labor leaders anxiously watch Senate race
Labor leaders and business groups across the country will be closely watching the results of Minnesota's Senate race on Tuesday night. The reason: It could determine whether Democrats will hold enough seats to prevent a filibuster.
Unions want Democrats to have the 60 seat majority, so the Senate can pass a bill that would make it easier for them to organize. Business groups, however, have been spending millions in Minnesota and other states to prevent that.
St. Paul, Minn. — You may not know exactly what the Employee Free Choice Act is, but you've probably heard about it in TV ads that have been running since June.
"Norm Coleman says keep the secret ballot for union organizing elections. The guy's a hero, I hate heroes," says one TV ad.
"The Employee Free Choice Act gives workers the freedom to form a union, so they can earn better wages, retirement security and better health care coverage," says another ad.
"Al Franken backs a bill that would take away your private vote in union elections," says yet another TV ad.
The Employee Free Choice Act, also known as card check, would make it easier for unions to organize in the workplace.
Current law allows businesses to demand a secret ballot when workers want to organize. Under card check, workers could sign a card indicating that they want to form a union, a much easier process than a secret election.
Andy Stern is the President of the Service Employees International Union, the nation's fastest growing union. He complained that corporate profits and CEO salaries are at record highs while ordinary workers are struggling to make ends meet.
"When you want to re-balance power, you have to take it from people who have it and give it to others. We don't begrudge anyone who is wealthy, but all of the hard work of American workers shouldn't just go to the CEO and the shareholder, some of it has to go the workers. The Employee Free Choice Act is one of many ways to rebuild the middle class," said Stern.
Stern and other union leaders say they're pushing the proposal, because business leaders often make it difficult for workers who want to organize a union. He said the bill would still allow a secret election, if 30 percent of the workers in the workplace requested it.
Business leaders say that's not enough and are vehemently opposed to the bill.
"We want to preserve the right, the Constitutional right, of a secret ballot," said Tom Donahoe, President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Donahoe said his organization is opposed to The Employee Free Choice Act, because it could lead to intimidation by union bosses
"And the suggestions by America's labor unions that we would eliminate that right and go to a card check system where I can go to your house at night and intimidate you to sign the card and take away the right of a secret ballot is a battle that these guys are going to find very uncomfortable," said Donahoe.
Business groups have been spending heavily to keep card check from becoming law. In Minnesota alone, groups with business ties have spent $4 million on TV ads to defeat Al Franken. A group with union ties has run $600,000 in ads in support of the Democrat. The fear is that Franken could be the 60th Democratic member of the Senate, enough to defeat any filibusters that could block the proposal.
The House of Representative has already passed the legislation, but it's been bottled up in the Senate.
"This is one of the main pieces of legislation that a filibuster-proof Senate would be able to pass. It's just sitting there waiting," said Gary Chaison, a professor of Industrial Relations at Clark University in Massachusetts.
Chaison said businesses don't like card check, because unions could secretly organize without a business ever knowing it. But he said employers currently have the upper hand when it comes to organizing.
Chaison said unions need card check in order to survive. Union membership has declined dramatically over the past few decades. Federal statistics say 20 percent of American workers belonged to unions in 1983. It was 12 percent in 2007.
"The short term thing they would like to see change is how unions organize, because the unions and their members realize that to revive the labor movement, you have to grow the labor movement. And that can only occur by organizing which is right now a very expensive and time consuming process," said Chaison.
Of course, all of this may not matter if Republican John McCain is elected President. He opposes the legislation. Democrat Barack Obama said if he becomes president, he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.