MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. Labor unions are hoping they might regain their strength after eight years of an administration that was no friend to organized labor. Now, labor's top priority is passing a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act which would make it easier for workers to organize. Business groups oppose the legislation as NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: This is all about letting unions into the workplace. For a union, step one is getting workers to sign cards saying they want to organize. Usually if more than 30 percent of workers sign the cards, things go to step two - an election with secret ballots. The bill says that if more than half of the workers said yes on the cards, the union could come in without an election. For arcane reasons, this is called card check. If your state had a big senate race last fall, you've already heard all about it.
(Soundbite of a campaign advertisement)
Unidentified Man: Franken says eliminate the secret ballot for workers.
Unidentified Man #2: My pal Al...
OVERBY: That ad featured a supposed union thug. Its target was democratic challenger Al Franken in Minnesota. It was produced by the Coalition for Workplace Democracy, a group of 500 plus members ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Maine Innkeepers Association.
The Minnesota Senate election still isn't certified. If Franken takes that seat for the Democrats, corporate America's last line of defense on card check becomes perilously weak. But while the business coalition used a comedic union figure for its ads, the union alliance, American Rights at Work, produced a real one at a press conference yesterday.
Joe Sorrentino works on a unionizing campaign at the supermarket chain where he's employed in Rhode Island.
Mr. JOE SORRENTINO: I don't see what the big problem with giving Americans better pay, medical coverage and a secure job - I mean, we're incredible people. We organize, we can do anything, and I don't see why we couldn't do this.
OVERBY: Unions have steadily lost strength in the private sector, but each side has statistics to show it's the underdog. Those stats were flying last week at a senate hearing for labor secretary designate Hilda Solis. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch says the bill just isn't needed. He says unions win more than 60 percent of contested elections these days.
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Now, if employer interference is so prevalent, how can unions win such a high percentage of elections?
OVERBY: Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, supports the bill.
Senator BERNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): Today, if an employee is engaged in a union organizing campaign, that employee has a one in five chance of getting fired.
OVERBY: The two sides agree this bill is a top priority. Besides the card check provision, it would also end a commonly used stalling tactic. Companies often drag out negotiations on a union's first contract. Under the bill, federal arbitrators could impose a two-year contract.
Ms. RHONDA BENTZ (Spokesperson, Coalition for Workplace Democracy): We think, you know, this is not a pro-worker piece of legislation.
OVERBY: Rhonda Bentz speaks for the business group, The Coalition for Workplace Democracy.
Ms. BENTZ: Effectively removing secret ballot elections doesn't seem pro-worker. Supporting a provision that forces, you know, government bureaucrats to dictate contracts doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
OVERBY: She predicts a fight of monumental proportions. Labor has enlisted a phalanx of liberal allies, among them, the NAACP, Sierra Club and National Organization for Women. Mary Beth Maxwell, director of American Rights at Work, is among the top strategists.
Ms. MARY BETH MAXWELL (Director, American Rights at Work): I am incredibly hopeful about the momentum that we have right now for restoring some balance and fairness for workers' rights. Voters have spoken up, they want change.
OVERBY: Now, labor and business are ramping up lobbying campaigns including more TV. Both sides insist there is no room for compromise. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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