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Big Money Fuels Fight Over Labor Bill

The nonpartisan money-in-politics-tracking Website, OpenSecrets.org, has an eye-opening roundup of the money spent in support or opposition the Employee Free Choice Act, introduced in Congress yesterday.

The bill, which would allow employees to form a union if they can gather signatures from a majority of workers, rather than being required also to hold a formal election weeks after collecting the signed cards, is virulently opposed by business groups, who fear they’ll lose the ability to sway workers against the union option. (The law would also increase penalties against employers who mistreat workers for trying to unionize.)

According to OpenSecrets, “Business [Political Action Committees] not only gave nearly five times more in campaign contributions than labor PACs did in the last election cycle ($365.1 million versus $77.9 million, including contributions to leadership PACs) they are backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $144.4 million on lobbying efforts in the 2007-2008 election cycle, or more than $400,000 for every day Congress was in session. By contrast, the entire labor sector spent less than $84 million on lobbying efforts during those two years.”

All that lobbying by big business has certainly won the support of some Republicans, who have conveniently misrepresented the bill as “taking away the secret ballot” from employees — as opposed to offering them another, far simpler option for how to form a union.

For example, at a fundraising stop Monday in his home state, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said that “jobs are being exported. We have problems with pensions and health care. To take away the secret ballot is big stuff. I’m listening to all of the viewpoints very carefully. I have a hunch we’ll vote this spring.”

And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called it “a threat to one of the fundamentals of democracy.”

Meanwhile, some Democrats who’ve supported the bill in the past aren’t signing onto it now. Even key Senate Democrats are wavering in their support, The Wall Street Journal reports.

That’s likely because it’s so easy to distort what the bill says, and why. As Rachel Maddow explained on her MSNBC show the other night, in the most coherent and straightforward discussion I’ve heard yet of this bill, the purpose of the Employee Free Choice Act is to allow employees to form a union without having to endure weeks of intimidation by their bosses. The “card check” option, as it’s called, means employees can just sign a card to vote for the union, if they want to do that. (As Maddow explains, contrary to the Republicans’ claims, the law explicitly allows them to have a secret ballot, too, if they want one.)

Employees might want to go with the card check because traditionally, after the cards are signed, an employer gets several weeks in which it can campaign against the union, often by intimidating employees who might want to sign up. As a former labor lawyer and a former employee at a company where some of us signed cards to form a union, I can attest that the boss immediately starts sending letters and emails to employees listing all the terrifying things that are likely to happen when they join — including that they could all be fired. Since employees are a captive audience to the boss, they get to hear lots and lots of this reasoning. And eventually, many are too scared to vote for the union, despite that sacred secret ballot.

The Employee Free Choice Act tries to swing the pendulum back a bit, so employees can make a choice without intimidation. Card check has long been an option under the National Labor Relations Act, but the law gave employers the right to veto it, and increasingly, that’s just what they’ve done.

For a more thorough explanation, including how the labor law actually applies to a unionizing battle at a Rite Aid in Lancaster, Calif., check out this story on Truthout from David Bacon.

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