Here's the EFCA million-dollar question: What changes in the legislation?
Republicans are united in opposition, four moderate Democrats who voted for it in the past are wobbling, Arlen Specter is damned if he does and really damned if he doesn't, Al Franken is still not technically a Senator, Ben Nelson opposes the legislation and upon introduction to the senate the bill has six fewer co-sponsors than it did the last time around. Nonetheless, at a press conference today, Senator Tom Harkin told reporters that "the votes are there. The support is there. We don't see that erosion," and that some of his colleagues promised their support without agreeing to co-sponsor the bill.
On the other hand, there was a lot of talk about process, about committees, about amendments and modifications. Representative George Miller, who has the easier job of leading the House side of the legislation, noted that the consensus right now among leadership -- decidedly non-final -- is that the senate has to pass the legislation first to assuage Blue Dog concerns. That means the great compromisers have a first bite of the apple.
The bill has three parts: Majority sign-up, which requires employers to recognized a union if a majority of employers sign up to indicate their preference; first contract arbitration, where an independent third party would ensure that the union and management reached their first employment agreement; and increase penalties for management violations of the National Labor Relations Act (firing pro-union workers, for instance).
All three provisions could be watered down, but despite the focus on majority sign-up and its so-called threat to the secret ballot, both management and labor are perhaps more invested first contract arbitration: management doesn't want to be forced into any contract with a union (44 percent of newly-certified unions fail to do so) and labor wants a return on their organizing investment. Pro-labor legislators could pull a switch now, give up majority sign-up in favor of accelerated elections, and probably win the day with first contract arbitration and stiffer NLRB penalties -- after all, the only real talking point conservatives have against the legislation is the false claim that it eliminates the secret ballot. On the other hand, majority sign up is more likely to pass without first-contract arbitration. It's possible that one of these two provisions could change (with the NLRB election rules modifications remaining the same) for a compromise. But if both provisions are watered down, it's not a compromise, it's a defeat.
But! It's still not inconceivable that the bill will pass as authored if the president, along with the senate leadership, spends significant political capital to buy off Nelson and his moderate cohorts. The administration has been consistent in reiterating its pledge to support this bill, and it would be pretty foolish of them to keep saying so in the months after the election as the vote-counting became clear unless they planned on trying to push it over the top. The senate is all about negotiation, and there will be another month or so before the bill even comes out of committee. (Harkin forecasts that it will appear sometime after the Easter recess).
Despite all this, labor remains confident. "Right now we're campaigning for the bill as it stands," AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney said, though he noted he would address amendments as they arose. And for his part, Harkin said that the "basic premise" of the legislation -- that employees should be able to decide how they form a union -- must remain intact.
-- Tim Fernholz
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