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Labor Bill Faces Threat In Senate
Melanie Trottman & Brody Mullins
The Wall Street Journal
Key Senate Democrats are wavering in their support of legislation that would give more power to labor unions, dealing a setback to labor's top priority as businesses warn of the damage the bill would cause.
The battle over the "Employee Free Choice Act" -- expected to be introduced Tuesday -- is seen as a power struggle among labor unions and businesses, as well as a test of whether moderate Democrats and Republicans will push back on Democratic congressional leaders and the Obama administration.
At least six Senators who have voted to move forward with the so-called card-check proposal, including one Republican, now say they are opposed or not sure -- an indication that Senate Democratic leaders are short of the 60 votes they need for approval.
The legislation is divisive and distracting, said Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln in an interview Monday. The Democratic lawmaker, who was previously seen as a supporter, said the Senate should focus on creating jobs and improving the U.S. economy. "I have 90,000 Arkansans who need a job, that's my No. 1 priority," she said. The legislation, she said, would be "divisive and we don't need that right now. We need to focus on the things that are more important."
Sen. Lincoln is one of several moderate Democrats expressing doubts about the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill would allow unions to organize workers without a secret ballot, giving employees the power to organize by simply signing cards agreeing to join. A second provision would give federal arbitrators power to impose contract terms on companies that fail to reach negotiated agreements with unions. Both provisions are strongly opposed by business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor are among the Democratic lawmakers who have backed off their previous support.
An aide for Sen. Landrieu said the senator is carefully reviewing the issue. "She understands that it is a heated debate and wants to make an informed decision" in part by meeting with groups on both sides.
Sen. Pryor said in a statement that "this legislation is not perfect, and while I have been supportive in the past, I will consider amendments to make it better if and when it is considered by the Senate." Like Sen. Lincoln, Sen. Pryor said there are more pressing issues relating to the economy that the Senate should be addressing, one of his aides said Monday.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is another key member who is wavering. Though he voted with Democrats in 2007, he now says, "I'm still thinking about it." He added, "I'm being lobbied on it very, very heavily."
Several of the lawmakers face tough re-election races in 2010, or represent states with few unionized workers. Mrs. Lincoln is running for re-election in a state that Mr. Obama lost, 59% to 39%. Mr. Specter could face a more conservative Republican in a primary in Pennsylvania next year.
Business groups spent more than $30 million last year on TV ads opposing the idea, mainly in states represented by moderate Democrats, such as Arkansas, Nebraska and Colorado. The labor-backed American Rights at Work has spent $10 million on advertisements backing the legislation since Labor Day.
Both labor and businesses say they don't see a reason to compromise. But labor unions acknowledged Monday they are in for a long fight. "While we know it won't be easy, we're confident" that the legislation will be enacted, said Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union.
Some supporters of the bill have privately suggested requiring language on a union card to make clear that signing the card is equivalent to voting to join a union. There also are suggestions to extend the amount of time before mandatory arbitration kicks in.
The legislation is expected to sail through the House. But the new uncertainly over Democratic support makes it more likely the bill, in its current form, will be stalled without the 60 votes needed to approve contentious measures in the Senate.
The splits among Democrats underscore how difficult it will be for party leaders to move their agenda through the congressional process, even with large majorities on Capitol Hill. On such issues as health care and global warming, Democratic leaders will face divisions within their own party that are expected to require some compromise to reach 60 votes.
Democrats are "a regional party, representing a large swath of the country from rural to urban areas, North and South," said Marty Paone, a former top Democratic aide in the Senate. "On each issue, you are going to have members who will find something that will negatively impact their constituents. So you need to find compromise and on some issues...you are going to have to find Republicans to offset the Democrats that you lose."
President Barack Obama reiterated his support for the bill last week, the first time since his inauguration. In a videotaped message to top union officials attending an AFL-CIO meeting in Miami, Mr. Obama indicated he would help labor pass the Employee Free Choice Act.
"We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests because we cannot have a strong middle-class without a strong labor movement," he said in the message.
Bill Gould, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under President Bill Clinton, suggested replacing the card-check provision with secret-ballot elections that take place within five to 10 days after a union files a petition with the NLRB, quicker than they currently do. He also said government-appointed arbitrators should be called upon only when talks have completely failed.
With automatic arbitration, he said, the side with less leverage in negotiations will have little incentive to bargain. Mr. Gould, now a professor at Stanford University Law School, said he has been contacted by the staff of several Senators, "reflecting some unease about the legislation as it's drawn now."
He declined to say whose staff had called him.