Unions, business preparing for smackdown over votes

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From whistle stop tours across the country to million-dollar advertising campaigns, both sides are gearing up for a fight as Congress considers the Employee Fair Choice Act, also known as card check legislation.

The fight pits business against the unions, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launching television ad campaigns in five states, including Colorado, to oppose the bill, which would change the rules for workers who want to form a union.

The AFL-CIO, on the other hand, took the personal route, with bus tours that crisscrossed the state, including stops in Colorado Springs, Boulder, Trinidad, Ludlow, Pueblo, Denver, Idaho Springs, Longmont, Fort Collins, Greeley and Keenesburg.

The bill would allow workers to form a union using only card signatures — which, under current law is only the first step in the process. It ends having a companywide vote, requiring 50 percent plus one for a majority. It also provides new rules for mediation and arbitration, which has opponents saying there will be too much government interference in business.

The business community says the legislation eliminates workers’ private votes when deciding whether to form a union.

“This bill will have egregious consequences,” said Katie Packer, executive director for the Workforce Fairness Institute. “It represents a hostile takeover of the companies only 120 days after the union vote.”

The biggest problems most business owners have with the bill are provisions that require federal mediation after 120 days if no agreement is reached. If mediation fails, a federal arbitrator is brought in, and that person can set the rules the business must follow.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has spoken out against the bill — saying that a similar bill was passed in Massachusetts and the consequences were “devastating” to business.

“This bill has two drastic recommendations — one is to eliminate a procedure, the secret ballot that is so essential to democracy,” he said. “It allows coercion of workers because their vote is not secret. The second is the loss of the ability to vote in favor or in opposition to contracts. The federal government will mandate rates of compensation, benefits levels. If passed, the results will be calamitous for small business.”

U.S. chamber officials fear the bill’s passage would allow the federal government to set wages and working conditions, and impose one-sided penalties on employers. Local chambers of commerce also are encouraging their members to ask legislators to vote against the bill.

“We’ve already been deep in to fighting the card check bill,” said David Csintyan, executive director of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. “Our board is opposed to it, and we’ve communicated that to our members.”

He said that local companies such as The Broadmoor Hotel have watched hotels and resorts such as The Greenbrier in West Virginia struggle financially because of union wage and hour pressures.

“The title, ‘Employee Free Choice Act,’ is a little misleading,” Csintyan said. “It’s really about your employees no longer having a secret ballot. That’s not free choice.”

Csintyan also said that most stakeholders believe the votes to pass such legislation just aren’t there.

“Nationally 14 Democrats now say they won’t support it,” he said. “This bill is not a fait accompli.”

But unions say the bill is needed: CEOs don’t work without contracts; neither should workers. They also say that more than 60 million workers would form a union “tomorrow” if given the opportunity.

As for arguments that the bill ends secret ballots, the AFL-CIO said that majority sign-up is a “long-standing” way to establish a union.

“Simply put, employers wield considerable strength, and workers must be able to unionize so wage and benefit negotiations occur on a more even playing field,” said Leo Girard, president of the United Steel Workers. “There’s power in common endeavor. In 1935, in the depth of the Great Depression, the government encouraged workers to use their power to obtain better wages. It did that because better wages to many would help end the Depression for all. Just like in 1935, workers now need unions to help them secure better wages, which will, in the end, be good for the country because it will improve the economy.”

The bill is called the Employee Free Choice Act for a reason, said Charley Johnson, business representative at local union No. 113 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“Right now, a company can walk away in a year if there is no agreement reached with workers,” he said. “They have a choice. This bill puts the choice on the workers. They can decide to form the union by signing the cards, then they can decide if they want to accept the company’s offer or take it to mediation.”

Under current law, a company can decide to accept a union or can decide to hold another election. The new bill would require the company to accept the election, he said.

Johnson refutes claims that there are no qualified people to perform mediation for the companies. He said he has used mediation and it has worked.

“Mediation is about compromise,” he said. “No one gets everything they want.”

Johnson also said the card check process is secret, and constitutes a secret ballot.

“Anyone who thinks this does away with secret elections hasn’t read the bill,” he said. “You have to have a majority of the workers sign the card, just like before.”

The bill isn’t anti-business, he said, and neither are unions.

“It’s simple,” he said. “If normal working people are making more money, they’re spending that money locally. It’s what we encourage people to do — buy local. We really beat that drum. And if wages for workers go up, we spend that money on Main Street, not on Wall Street.”

The bill needs 60 votes to advance in the Senate, but announcements of opposition by Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Arlen Specter have left the bill’s future clouded. Colorado Sen. Mark Udall opposes the bill, and Sen. Michael Bennet is undecided.

Becky Hurley contributed to this story.