Two Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation Tuesday that has — once again — stirred up a firestorm of debate between business interests and labor groups.
At the center is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would amend existing labor law. If passed, workers could form a union if the majority of them sign cards requesting one. That would be a change from current law, where employers can require a secret ballot, which takes more time and allows more employer input.
Just the threat of this new law making it easier to form a union caused one of corporate America's only growing companies to take a hit.
Wal-Mart was given a downgraded stock rating by a Wall Street analyst, who said the so-called card-check law could hurt the company and bring its stock down about 10 percent.
Money is what makes this such a high-stakes battle. Labor unions want to push for more middle-class wage hikes. And that sends shivers down corporate America's spine — especially in hard times like this, when companies are trying to trim labor costs.
And as is often the case with policy issues like this one, coalitions have formed on both sides.
The Case For Business
One broadcast commercial, sponsored by a group backing business interests called the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, says: "Today, when workers vote on having a union at their workplace, they use a secret ballot, but a new law could change all that."
The ad campaign from the group features a mafia boss who shakes down employees — intimidating them into backing the union.
"It's intended to stack the deck to make sure that a union can organize any business it wants without too much of a hassle," says Brad Close, vice president of federal public policy for the National Federation of Independent Business, which is a member of the coalition. Close says workers actually stand to lose, if the bill passes.
"A lot of small-business owners tell us that if they are forcibly organized under this legislation, a lot of them will close their doors, so you're going to have job losses from businesses shutting down, so it is going to have an impact on the economy," he says.
Promoting the health of the economy is an argument that both the law's detractors and its supporters lay claim to.
The Case For Labor
For its part, a labor-backed coalition calling itself American Rights at Work is running ads like this: "Corporate greed: It's caused a meltdown of our economy — just look at the news or your retirement account. Now greedy CEOs want to prevent workers from joining unions to level the playing field."
Stewart Acuff, special assistant to the president at the AFL-CIO, says, "This is one of the most important issues facing America today." He argues that one of the reasons for current economic stagnation is that workers haven't gotten meaningful wage increases in recent decades. And as a result they've lost buying power.
"We need to put more money in the hands of the people who will spend it in this economy. You can't power this economy if average Americans can't buy things, and this will allow workers to negotiate for a fair share of the wealth that they create so that they can then spend it and power this economy."
A vote has not yet been set on the bill. During the last Congress, it passed the House but failed in the Senate.
This year, with a clearer Democratic majority in both houses, it stands a better chance — though not a sure one — of passing.