Union ‘Card Check’ Bill Stopped in U.S. Senate

Published June 1, 2009

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) has blocked a vote on the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as “card check,” once again putting himself at the center of the debate.

The card check measure—a priority of labor unions—would eliminate the requirement of secret ballot elections to form a union. It also could subject employers and unions to binding arbitration by federal officials and would penalize employers, but not unions, for any labor practice violations.

In 2007 Specter was the only Republican to vote with the Democrats to end debate on card check. Even with Specter’s vote, Democrats did not have the 60 needed to end debate and force a vote on the bill.

This year, with fewer Republicans in the Senate, Specter’s vote became pivotal. His vote against cloture likely leaves Democrats one short of moving the measure forward.

Wants Revisions

Specter explained his decision by saying he has concerns about the current version. He pointed to the measure’s elimination of the requirement for a secret ballot vote, which he said is “the cornerstone of how contests are decided in a democratic society.”

Specter also said the bill’s arbitration provisions may unfairly subject employers to outcomes they cannot support. Such a scenario is in direct violation of the Wagner Act, which makes the employer accountable for a contract to which he or she agrees.

However, Specter also said unions “have suffered greatly” from the outsourcing of jobs and now face possible losses in pensions and health benefits. He indicated a willingness to compromise and suggested 12 revisions, including elections to be held within 10 days of the filing of a joint petition from the employer and union.

Specter also called for applying penalties to either a union or an employer for unfair labor practices, such as visiting an employee’s home without prior consent during a representation campaign. Other suggested changes would require parties to begin negotiations within 21 days after a union is certified and would allow 120 days from the first meeting to call for federal arbitration.

Specter also suggested the arbitration provision could be “substantially improved” by including a “last best offer” procedure because that could provide an incentive for both parties to work toward a deal instead of holding back and demanding arbitration.

Compromise Offered

Meanwhile, three large retailers offered their own compromise.

A proposal by Costco Wholesale, Starbucks, and Whole Foods Market would uphold secret-ballot elections and drop the binding arbitration provision. Their plan calls for expanded penalties for companies that retaliate against employees during a union drive or refuse to participate in collective bargaining.

The proposed compromise also calls for penalties on unions that violate the law and for easier union decertification elections.

The goal of the companies’ suggestion was to “trigger a conversation between business and labor,” said their attorney, Lanny Davis.

Scott Dilley ([email protected]) and Rachel Culbertson ([email protected]) are labor policy analysts at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington.