As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sausage Making On Employee Free Choice

Yesterday Arlen Specter announced that a compromise was in the works for the Employee Free Choice Act.

Sen. Arlen Specter said Thursday the "prospects are pretty good" for a compromise on legislation making it easier for workers to form unions.

Specter had come out against the bill in March, disappointing labor leaders. They had hoped he would be the crucial 60th vote needed to overcome an expected GOP filibuster of the Employee Free Choice Act.

The Pennsylvania senator has since switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, and he said he's been meeting with labor leaders and fellow senators in hopes of coming up with a compromise he could support.

President Barack Obama also said Thursday that he hoped a compromise could be worked out that would "get enough votes to pass the bill."

The good news here is that Specter realizes he needs to protect his left flank, lest he receive a primary challenge. American Rights at Work released an ad hammering him this week, and the unions have made it pretty clear that they will condition their support for Specter based on his record.

The bad news is that we have no idea what form this compromise will take. Specter has signaled that he opposes both the majority sign-up and the 120-day arbitration portions of the bill. The second part doesn't get mentioned much, but it's just as important, as Harold Meyerson noted in the Washington Post:

If our nation was governed by business's version of democratic choice, we would hold elections to determine the winner, but nearly half the time the incumbent would remain in power even if he lost.

In its campaign to derail the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), business has fearlessly depicted itself as the defender of elections and the secret ballot as well as the foe of the dread "card check" -- the process, championed by unions and included within EFCA, that would allow workers to sign union affiliation cards rather than compelling them to go through a ratification election in which harassment and firings of workers are all too common.

But the kind of democratic choice that business favors is choice without consequence -- a position made clear by its opposition to the other key component of EFCA: binding arbitration between company and union if they've been unable to agree on a contract within 120 days of a union winning the election. A study of first-contract negotiations by John-Paul Ferguson and Thomas A. Kochan of MIT's Sloan School of Management makes clear why such arbitration is needed. After surveying 22,000 unionization campaigns between 1999 and 2004, the authors found that even after a majority of workers voted for a union, they actually reached a contractual agreement with management (which is currently under no legal obligation to come to an agreement) only 56 percent of the time.

Heads, management wins. Tails, the employees lose.

Specter and others have proposed modifications to both majority sign-up and 120-day arbitration. There's Dianne Feinstein's "vote-by-mail" sign-up, where workers send in cards to the National Labor Relations Board and get their union when half of the workplace sends them in. And Specter has promoted a "last best offer" arbitration, with mediation after each side sends in their proposal.

We'll see if these are amenable to the unions. My hope is that everyone understands that the current system is irreparably broken, and we need something to change the ability of employers to fight tooth and nail against unionization, even after the workplace makes their will known through a hard-fought election. In the end, this is about worker rights.

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