Big news in today's New York Times on the year's major labor legislation:
A half-dozen senators friendly to labor have decided to drop a central provision of a bill that would have made it easier to organize workers.
The so-called card-check provision — which senators decided to scrap to help secure a filibuster-proof 60 votes — would have required employers to recognize a union as soon as a majority of workers signed cards saying they wanted a union. Currently, employers can insist on a secret-ballot election, a higher hurdle for unions.
Though some details remain to be worked out, under the expected revisions, union elections would have to be held within five or 10 days after 30 percent of workers signed cards favoring having a union. Currently, the campaigns often run two months.
To further address labor’s concerns that the election process is tilted in favor of employers, key senators are considering several measures. One would require employers to give union organizers access to company property. Another would bar employers from requiring workers to attend anti-union sessions that labor supporters deride as “captive audience meetings.”
“This bill will bring about dramatic changes, even if card check has fallen away,” said an A.F.L.-C.I.O. official who insisted on anonymity.
The official said the revised bill achieves the three things organized labor has been seeking.
“Our goals,” the official said, “have always been letting employees have a real choice, having real penalties against employers who break the law in fighting unions, and having some form of binding arbitration to prevent employers from dragging their feet forever to prevent reaching a contract.
The fairly muted reaction from labor leaders in this story (written by Steven Greenhouse, one of the last really good reporters on labor issues, who undoubtedly talked to a lot of them) suggests that they might have seen this coming. A labor lawyer writing in to Talking Points Memo suggested as much, characterizing card check as a "a bargaining chip they were willing to sacrifice if needed" and even suggesting that the union side had set a trap for the business community by signaling that they would go to the wall for that provision. (That said, some labor leaders still seem anxious to see the measure get an up or down vote.)
Personally, my sense throughout the several years now of this debate has been that there are probably ways to move the labor/management playing field closer to level without including card check, so I'm pleased to hear about this compromise. Inaction, however, is not acceptable: the signal "achievement" of the economic expansion during the Bush years was that the economy grew while real household income stagnated or declined, a first. The vast bulk of the gains went to ownership, with a share going to the best-educated workers. Nobody could argue with a straight face that the decline of organized labor had nothing to do with this.
For another thing, the business lobbies remain prone to make sufficiently dickish remarks that, in my less even-handed moments, I kind of just want to see them get mauled, e.g. (from the NYT story):
Business leaders say the current system is fair, asserting that unions lose so many elections because workers oppose paying union dues and do not feel they need unions to represent them.
Corporate lobbyists have indicated they would oppose fast elections, arguing that such a provision would deny employers ample opportunity to educate employees about the downside of unionizing, such as strikes and union dues.
This is, in a word, bullshit. Public opinion toward unions is, and always has been, broadly favorable; and while I can't find the link right now, I'm pretty sure I remember seeing polling that most workers who aren't able to form unions would like to have the options. Meanwhile, the horror stories about how employers "educate" their workers about unions usually end with would-be organizers getting fired, then blacklisted. While this is entirely illegal, consequences have been minimal to nonexistent for years. If the Employee Fair Choice Act, with or without "card check," only changes that situation, it would represent worthwhile legislation. But workers deserve more, and if the compromise suggests that they'll get it, all good.