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Union Leaders Press President Obama for More Support

July 13, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Nearly a dozen union leaders met with President Obama Monday in an effort to gain support for key legislation now before Congress. Ray Suarez talks with experts about the bills and their potential impact on workers and employers.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the scrap over making it easier to unionize. Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: More than a dozen union leaders met with President Obama at the White House today trying to persuade him to push harder on key bills pending before Congress. One of those is called the Employee Free Choice Act, and it includes two key provisions business and labor are fighting over.

The first, commonly referred to as card check, would allow unions to organize at a business once a majority of workers sign cards saying they want unions there. That would be an alternative to a secret ballot system, as is the case now.

The second concerns binding arbitration. Under the bill, if management and a new union can’t agree on a first contract within four months, a federal arbitrator can impose a deal.

Since the bill would have big ramifications, both labor and business have already taken to the airwaves. Here are a pair of TV ads from both sides airing in select markets. The second has aired in Louisiana.

WORKER: I hope to work just one job for a change.

WORKER: I hope to have some health care for a change.

WORKER: I hope to be able to save a little for a change.

ANNOUNCER: We voted on Election Day for hope and change. Now it’s time for action. The Employee Free Choice Act lets workers choose to join a union to earn better pay, health benefits, and job security. The Employee Free Choice Act: It’s time the economy worked for everyone again.

WORKER: We cannot let Congress do this to Louisiana.

ANNOUNCER: Congress wants to strip away the secret ballot…

WORKER: The private vote is so important to our basic fundamental rights.

ANNOUNCER: … and let bureaucrats dictate to Louisiana businesses.

WORKER: A bureaucrat from Washington could never tell any private enterprise how to run their business.

WORKER: If this bill passes, jobs in Louisiana will be lost.

ANNOUNCER: Tell Congress: Protect Louisiana from card check. Paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

WORKER: We don’t need to compromise. We need to vote it down.

Bringing back the middle class

RAY SUAREZ: For a closer look at the bill and its prospects, we turn to two principal players in this fight.

Larry Cohen is president of the Communication Workers of America and chair of the AFL-CIO's Organizing Committee. He was one of the labor leaders who met with the president.

And Randel Johnson is senior vice president of labor policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Larry Cohen, you were with the president today. What did you tell him about the Employee Free Choice Act? And what did he have to say?

LARRY COHEN, AFL-CIO Organizing Committee: Well, we told him that this is the way to bring back the middle class in this country. It's no different than 75 years ago, when John Maynard Keynes, the greatest economist of the time, wrote to President Roosevelt and said, "I regard the expansion of collective bargaining as essential."

When we're cutting and cutting and cutting on a micro level jobs and pay and benefits, there's no way we ever get out of a recession. The workers themselves can help lift us out by giving them a seat at a bargaining table where they can meet with management, cooperate with management, and work together on a better future.

RAY SUAREZ: Randel Johnson, how would the Employee Free Choice Act change the landscape that you and your members have to work in?

RANDEL JOHNSON, U.S. Chamber of Commerce: Right. And I note that the union ads don't really describe what the bill does in any detail at all. And I think this is one of those cases where it is important to read the legislation.

And you mentioned there are two parts. And the first part is it substitutes this card-check process for a secret ballot. And our concern about that is really what the courts have said, which is that the so-called card-check process is subject to coercion on the part of the union organizers, not always, of course, but it does occur.

And that means when an employee signs that card, it's really not a voluntary choice that they want that union, as distinguished from a secret ballot, where you have voter protections.

The other part is, is the idea that a government arbitrator knows enough about our businesses to write a contract, govern every term and condition of employment, ranging from wages to your contributions to your 401(k) plan to work rules, is ludicrous, in our view.

And it's totally unprecedented in the private sector. So those two provisions are really nonstarters for us.

Card ballots create an alternative

RAY SUAREZ: Larry Cohen, the way these organizing or card ballots would be done is getting a lot of attention. Do you agree with his description that it would strip away the secret ballot that's been used in shops recently?

LARRY COHEN: No, actually, the way you put it on the lead-in is correct. It provides an alternative, and workers themselves get to decide which method to use.

Currently, the majority of workers who have bargaining rights -- and the U.S. is lowest of any industrial democracy at 7 percent -- received recognition from an employer based on majority sign-up, but today the employer has that choice of which method. And what this bill would do is give employees themselves the choice of which method they would use.

And that's not really the critical point. The critical point really is, why should this be the only democracy in the world -- 70 other democracies do not have employer campaigning involved. Workers don't have to vote against their boss to have a union.

Even in that ad, the sentence that said, "Jobs will be lost if this passes," that's exactly what it sounds like for a worker during an organizing campaign, right? "Vote for the union, we won't be here anymore." That's totally legal in our system. That's the kind of campaigning that is typical. It's the norm. It's not the exception.

RAY SUAREZ: No, but how would that change with what's specified in this proposed law?

LARRY COHEN: Because workers, if they chose, would be able to organize, decide by checking a box that, once a majority of their co-workers signed up, they could get recognition, a seat at the table, just like workers do in virtually every other industrial democracy, no campaign by their boss, no voting against their own boss.

RAY SUAREZ: But Randel Johnson just suggested that that was open to coercion. Wouldn't the checking of the box -- would be known to the organizer whether or not you voted to have a union?

LARRY COHEN: Yes, I just wish that that was the main issue, because there's all kinds of ways to safeguard that, just like we do in states across the country with early voting and other procedures.

The real issue here is, is the United States going to come back in the mainstream and let workers have bargaining rights, have a seat at the table, cooperate with management?

We're not interested in arguments with management or even with the chamber. We're interested in figuring out, how together can labor and management and workers and their bosses and employers work together to rebuild this economy?

Card-checks easy to manipulate

RAY SUAREZ: Randel Johnson, how do you respond to that?

RANDEL JOHNSON: Well, I have to read -- here's a former organizer who testified on the Hill. "I was taught to manipulate workers just to get a majority on the cards. I learned that promises made by organizers at the worker's house had little to do with how the union actually functions at a service organization."

The House and Senate have had some hearings on this issue. It's replete with examples of what former organizers have testified about how they manipulate the card-check process to intimidate workers to sign these cards. Often, the workers don't even know what they're really signing.

Now, with regard to whether or not a secret ballot process still exists, theoretically it would. It's still on the books, but it would be a dead letter, because unions show up at the workplace. They would always use this new process. That's the card-check process, because that's why they want the legislation, because it makes it much easier to organize, regardless of what the employees really want, and force the employer to recognize the union.

And the second part is, the arbitration provisions, of course, are still as much of a concern to us as the card-check process themselves.

RAY SUAREZ: Why wouldn't that be an equal concern to both sides? If there's a 120-day clock ticking, wouldn't both sides not want an arbitrator to come in and impose a settlement on a contract?

RANDEL JOHNSON: Well, because it's the employer who is going to have to live with the arbitrator's decision.

RAY SUAREZ: And the employees, no?

RANDEL JOHNSON: Well, but it's the employer who's going to have to come up with the profit margins to pay the wages to actually run the workplace. Even under current law, even under organized workplaces, it's still the responsibility of the employer to run the workplace, to come up with the profit margins so that they can pay their employees.

It's not the unions. They can help set work rules, et cetera, but in the end it's the employer who has to come up with and meet the bottom line. And so it's the employer that's going to have to live with the arbitrator's decisions.

For example, in Canada, some provisions allow for this card-check process in arbitration. Wal-Mart went into arbitration, and the arbitrator came back with a one-third increase in the workers' wages. And Wal-Mart in that case couldn't pay those wages, and so they closed down.

I mean, money is -- it's easy for an arbitrator to come up with a decision and say, "Oh, just raise everyone's wages." The employer in the end has to come up with that money to pay those wages, not the unions.

Unions hoping for a fair deal

RAY SUAREZ: Larry Cohen, quick response?

LARRY COHEN: Quick response is, the chamber, corporations want alternative dispute resolution, ADR, in every other area but this one. They want it in all kinds of liability situations.

Why in this case can't we have a fair process so that employees know, after going through all this -- they don't sign up to work to make this their career -- after going through all this, at the end of the day, they'll have a fair agreement, you know, with a mediator or arbitrator's help. Most of this process is actually about mediation.

And I would agree with the question you asked or where it leads, which is, absolutely, employees -- this is about employees, not the outside union, our union and others. It's all about the employees inside working with their employer to find a fair deal.

We need a fair deal again in America. We don't have one right now.

RANDEL JOHNSON: But just real quickly. Polls have shown employees overwhelmingly reject the idea of getting rid of a secret-ballot election by 75 percent or more. And even polls on the arbitration provisions have found that Americans say the idea of a government arbitrator stepping in and telling an employer how to run their workplace is ridiculous, and they ought to stick to the current system.

LARRY COHEN: Well, that's why we should give employees the choice. And we support a process where they would be deciding on the card. They can even mail it in. That's not an issue. They would have privacy around that.

The real question is, the United States, 7 percent of the workforce has bargaining rights. The next lowest country in the OECD has 20 percent, Japan. The question is, when do we join with the other 70 countries in the world that allow workers to establish bargaining rights at work without having to vote against or campaign against their own boss?

Workers don't want to fight their boss. They want to cooperate. Give us the chance to cooperate again.

RAY SUAREZ: Quick response?

RANDEL JOHNSON: Look, if unions have a product to sell to workers, i.e., because, for instance, they're working for a bad boss or they're underpaid, then unions can come in and sell that product. The problem with the union movement right now is they don't have a product that workers are really interested in any longer.

They organized very successfully in the past. The law hasn't changed. The unions have not changed as time has changed.

RAY SUAREZ: Randel Johnson, Larry Cohen, gentlemen, thank you both.