WASHINGTON -- A senior House Democrat yesterday introduced a bill that would allow workers to join a union as soon as a majority of them sign authorization cards, significantly changing the organizing process at a time when union membership nationwide is in a steady decline.
The Employee Free Choice Act, put forward by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, also would strengthen penalties against employers that take illegal steps to dissuade collective bargaining and allow mediation and arbitration if both sides fail to reach a first contract.
The bill promises to set up a battle between Democrats beholden to their union supporters and Republicans backed by business groups opposed to the change.
Joined by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and other union leaders, Mr. Miller decried the current procedures for organizing and bargaining, saying they are "stacked against the workers.''
His proposed legislation " is very simple,'' Mr. Miller said. "It says that if a majority of workers support a union, and have signed an authorization card, they get a union. That's it."
With 230 co-sponsors, the AFL-CIO is "reasonably confident" that the bill will pass the House, said legislative director Bill Samuels. While he thinks the bill could win a majority vote when it is introduced in the Senate, he was unsure about the possibility of mustering the 60 votes needed to end a Republican filibuster -- or the additional votes needed in either chamber to override a possible presidential veto.
The bill is a top priority for unions that make up the base of the Democratic Party, which in November won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in a dozen years.
Supporters argue that allowing unions to form by so-called "card checks," rather than formal National Labor Relations Board elections, is a matter of fairness, allowing unions to lobby for membership without intimidation from management.
Opponents of the bill charge that the card check process opens workers up to intimidation from a different source.
"I find it unconscionable that the Democratic majority would have as one of their first actions to take away the right to a secret ballot election," said Greg Mourad, director of legislation for the National Right to Work Foundation, which argues against "compulsory unionism" for workers.
"The card check process is extremely susceptible to union corruption," he said.
Union officials tout the bill's benefits for people such as Bob Boyle, a painter who last year lost his job at Oesterling's Sandblasting and Painting in Center, Butler County, after an unsuccessful attempt at organizing with the United Steelworkers of America.
Mr. Boyle, 57, said he and several other employees wanted a contract that would give them job security and better work conditions. A majority of the business's 21 workers signed union cards, Mr. Boyle said.
"We needed something, and how do you do that by yourself? You can't," Mr. Boyle said.
Mr. Boyle said Owen Oesterling, who owned the business, compelled employees to watch anti-union videos and warned them that he would have to lay off workers or close the business if they joined USW .
The vote, held about a year ago, went against the union, Mr. Boyle said. He claimed his role as an organizer led to his firing a few weeks later.
Mr. Oesterling couldn't be reached for comment yesterday, but Mr. Boyle said he and his former employer recently negotiated a severance agreement. The NLRB eventually recognized the union because of the legal issues before the vote.