Card-Check Legislation Introduced In House

House Democrats introduced their major labor legislation today, and girded themselves for a battle royale. The plan is known as "card check." It would make it easier for workers to organize. Business groups are not keen on it.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. It's being called the most significant piece of labor legislation in 50 years. The Employee Free Choice Act would make it much easier for workers to form a union. The bill was rolled out today on Capitol Hill and as NPR's David Welna reports, it has already set off a battle between organized labor and business groups.

DAVID WELNA: In presenting the Employee Free Choice Act, Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin said today will be remembered as a defining moment.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): We are introducing legislation that puts power back into the hands of the people who are truly the backbone of our country.

WELNA: That would be the power of workers to form a union when a majority signs a card in favor of doing so. Harkin said that right was given to workers in 1935, but they've since lost that right to management.

Sen. HARKIN: Management can decide whether or not there's a secret ballot or a majority signing. Management gets to decide that. Why can't the workers have the same right to make that same decision, either to have a secret ballot or majority sign it? I see no erosion in the Senate among the Democrats for that basic principle.

WELNA: In fact 40 of the Senate Democratic caucus's 57 members are cosponsoring the legislation. House Democrat George Miller of California says 223 House members, three of them Republicans, are cosponsors, enough for the bill to pass in that chamber. Miller called it vital in the nation's drive for economic recovery.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): It's not about labor versus management, pitting workers against employers. It's about allowing workers to once again share in the prosperity that they helped to create.

WELNA: That's not how business groups see it. Keith Smith of the National Association of Manufacturers says his group is concerned because once a union is formed, the bill could allow government arbitrators to dictate binding wages for two years.

Mr. KEITH SMITH (National Association of Manufacturers): This is something that many of our manufacturers have said definitely would weed them out of the market because of the globally competitive market that they're competing in. When they have relatively low margins in some sectors, it's hard for them to be able to be responsive to government-imposed arbitration.

WELNA: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell calls it the Employee No Choice Act, because unions could be formed with no secret ballot.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): And now we want to take away democracy, in effect, from the workplace. This is an outrageous proposal and we are going to strenuously object to it, fight it in every way, and hope to be able to defeat it.

WELNA: The Senate remains a question mark since it takes 60 votes in that chamber to overcome a GOP filibuster. Majority Leader Harry Reid was upbeat today about doing that.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority leader): We, of course, are looking for 60 votes. I think, frankly, they're there.

WELNA: But Senate Democrats admit they're counting on Democrat Al Franken being seated as Minnesota's Senator. And they're also counting on Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, who today was coy when asked how he'd vote.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Still thinking it over, hearing people on both sides, listening carefully.

WELNA: Majority Leader Reid says he plans to bring up the Employee Free Choice Act later this year.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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