Labor, business spar over Free Choice Act

Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2009

It was like two freight trains headed for collision, neither one yielding track.

At one end of the table was Rebecca Logan, executive director of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Alaska and no friend of organized labor.

At the other end was Vince Beltrami, the labor union's top point man in Alaska and no friend of Logan's.

Organizers of an April 8 luncheon debate in Anchorage over the federal Employee Free Choice Act, now the biggest hot-button for labor and business in Congress, thoughtfully put Logan and Beltrami at opposite ends of the panel, where they glared at each other but were out punching range.

Separating the two were two out-of-state experts on the pending congressional act: John Schmitt, senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a labor-oriented Washington, D.C., think-tank, and Marc Freedman, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's director of labor law policy, who argued the business side.

The Alaska State Chamber of Commerce sponsored the debate.

For business groups campaigning against the congressional bill, there are two major objections.

One is that unions will be able to organize companies by "stealth," filing cards from a majority of a firm's employees with the National Labor Relations Board. Employees would never actually vote yes or no on being represented by a union, business groups argue. In contrast, current law requires a secret-ballot vote by employees after 30 percent of the workers file cards with the NLRB.

Secondly, if contract negotiations between a private firm and a union break down, the dispute can be put to binding arbitration, where both sides would be required to accept the decision of a third-party arbitrator.

Public employers currently are required to use this procedure, but private companies resist it fiercely because they don't want an arbitrator who may be unfamiliar with the business or industry to make decisions with big bottom-line implications.

Labor has a different perspective of these points, however.

Unions feel current election procedures are tilted against them because federal law allows employers to hold compulsory meetings with employees to give them a pitch to vote against being represented. Union representatives are not present at these meetings, so employees hear only one side of the story, labor argues.

Secondly, unions feel they are at a severe disadvantage in the current bargaining process with private employers because there is nothing in the law that says the two sides have to reach agreement. Hence, the requirement for binding arbitration in the bill now before Congress.

Both sides were locked into their positions at the April 8 luncheon, and neither gave ground.

"I oppose any attempt to remove the opportunity for a secret ballot," said Logan, of Associated Builders and Contractors of Alaska. "The practical application here is that signed authorizations will replace secret ballot elections. This will allow the unions to avoid campaigns where both sides of the story can be told."

Beltrami, Alaska AFL-CIO president, fired right back. "Over the last 40 years the National Labor Relations Act (passed in the 1930s to protect the formation of unions) has been gutted. The current process is very lopsided and completely favoring the employer."

There is a lack of meaningful penalties for breaking the law, he said, which invites bad behavior.

"The single largest flaw, are the rules governing the 'campaign,' the period from which cards are filed with the labor board to when the election is held," Beltrami said. "Employers have total control of the campaign. Ninety-two percent of employers force workers to attend mandatory anti-union meetings; 78 percent force workers to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with supervisors. Twenty-five percent illegally fire at least one worker for legally protected union activity."

Unfair labor practice violations by employers result in little more than a slap on the wrist, he said.

Schmitt, with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, agreed there's little argument that purpose of the free choice act was to increase union members, but that will also strengthen the nation's economy, he said.

"The golden age of our economy, from the 1940s to the end of the 1970s, was a time of record growth and high income, and also a period of high union membership," he said.

In contrast, the last 20 years has seen declining union membership in the U.S. and a sharp rise in disparity of incomes, with the wealthier getting richer and the middle class losing ground financially.

There's a connection between union membership and prosperity, Schmitt said.

Freedman, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued the business side of this, "Unions have lost market share in the workforce because their product is stale. The Employee Free Trade Act is just a bailout for the unions."

Logan cited what she feels is a major flaw in the election process, the practice by unions of "salting," or having someone apply and get hired by a company only to be able to organize the workers.

"If the employer does anything to curb their activity, it usually results in an unfair labor practice claim, thousands of dollars in legal fees and even paying back wages to people who never had honest intentions of working for that employer," Logan said.

The strongest positions were taken on the binding arbitration provisions in the federal bill.

"Current law provides that once a union has been certified, both the union and the employer fall under an obligation to bargain in good faith," Logan said. "The prospect of binding arbitration could easily lead to one side holding out if it thinks the arbitration panel will come out its way. The likelihood of voluntary agreement in a short time will easily go down under this new system."

Beltrami sharply disagreed. "I've had years of experience negotiating or trying to negotiate collective bargaining agreements," he said. "The point of collective bargaining, from a union's perspective, is to ultimately result in a contract between a group of workers and their employers. Too often that is not the motivation with the employer."

The federal legislation is in HR 1409 in the U.S. House and S 569 in the Senate. The prime sponsor in the House is Rep. George Miller of California. In the Senate the prime sponsor is Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

There are 224 co-sponsors on the House bill and 39 co-sponsors of the Senate bill.

There are indications that some Democrats in the Senate are softening in their support of the bill, at least in its current form. President Barack Obama has said previously that he supported the bill, but now appears to be taking a second look at it, possibly out of concern for the economy.

Tim Bradner can be reached at

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