Broader Labor Agenda Likely to Face Rougher Waters
WASHINGTON (AP) - Labor, riding high after quick wins with President Barack Obama, faces the harsh reality that the Democratic-controlled Congress will not find it easy to push more fiercely contested legislation to improve the status of workers or the unions trying to organize them.
Obama on Friday issued executive orders that union officials say will undo Bush administration policies favoring employers. Among the orders, federal contractors would be required to offer jobs to current workers when contracts change, and they would be prevented from receiving reimbursement for expenses meant to influence worker decisions on joining unions or engaging in collective bargaining.
A day earlier, the new president signed the first bill of his administration, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which allows more leeway for women and others seeking justice over pay discrimination.
"What a difference a pro-worker Congress and pro-worker president make," SEIU International secretary-treasurer Anna Burger said at the signing ceremony for the Ledbetter bill.
But no one, including the Democrats who control Congress, are predicting that other labor rights priorities will sail through with the same speed as the Ledbetter bill.
When asked what's next on the labor agenda, Democratic leaders instead turn the conversation to bigger bills well beyond the scope of worker rights, such as the $819 billion economic stimulus plan the House passed or health care changes they hope to put together in coming months.
The stimulus plan contains provisions on job creation, job training, health care and extending unemployment benefits. "We think that that is a workplace fairness piece of legislation," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
On specific labor legislation, Democrats have already indicated they will move with caution.
On Jan. 9, the House passed the Ledbetter bill together with a second bill aimed at helping women fight workplace discrimination by putting gender-based discrimination on an equal footing with other forms of discrimination in seeking punitive damages. Republicans criticized that bill as a gift to trial lawyers, and Senate Democrats concerned that GOP opposition could doom the package put it aside, taking up only the Ledbetter bill.
The sparks generated by the companion bill are nothing compared to what could be the most spectacular, and most costly, fight of the year, over a bill making it easier for unions to organize workers.
The card check bill - hailed by supporters as the "Employee Free Choice Act" - would take away a company's right to demand a secret ballot election on whether workers want collective bargaining representative by a union. Instead, a union would be certified when the National Labor Relations Board finds that a majority of workers have signed cards designating the union as their bargaining representative.
Organized labor sees the bill as crucial to its recruitment drives. Unions represent about one in eight workers today, down from about one in five 25 years ago, although membership did increase slightly in 2008.
Business groups have vowed to do whatever it takes to defeat the bill.
Rhonda Bentz of the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, consisting of more than 500 groups opposing the bill, said they bought several million dollars in ads during the last session of Congress, and plan to spend a similar amount this year.
Keith Smith, director of labor policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, said some Democrats are realizing that "this is a live-fire exercise" where they don't have the cover of the veto threat issued by former President George W. Bush.
On the other side, American Rights at Work, a labor advocacy group, this month launched a $3 million ad campaign in favor of the bill. "A substantial majority of Americans see the Employee Free Choice Act as part of the common sense solutions critical to economic recovery and reinvigorating the middle class," said the group's executive director Mary Beth Maxwell.