Card check legislation could change the game for labor

The Employee Free Choice Act – commonly referred to as “card check” – could have far-reaching implications for business owners if it gets signed into law. And with a Democrat-controlled Congress and White House, the chances of a card check reality are high unless a coalition of groups opposed to it can convince one or two key senators to change their votes, said Kam Quarles, vice president of government relations and legislative affairs for the United Fresh Produce Association.

The act doesn’t apply to agricultural workers, but that exemption ends at the farm gate. Every business – from packinghouse to processing to retail store – would be required to allow union representatives into the business at any time and would have to turn over names and contact information of employees.

The name of the act doesn’t accurately describe what it does – it’s all about organized labor and not employee choice, Quarles said. The first piece of the legislation is the card check stipulation. What that does is eliminate the secret ballot that exists now.

Currently, a paid union representative will collect signatures, which are turned in to the federal labor board. The board then sets up an election, and if more than 50 percent of the employees vote to establish or renew their union membership, then it’s recognized and the union can negotiate with management, with the decision ratified by employees.

Under the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), 50 percent of a business’ employees plus one would simply have to sign their union card and the union would immediately be recognized – no vote needed. That gets rid of a secret ballot – and also lets the union keep track of who supports it and who doesn’t, Quarles said.

“Card check gets rid of all that inconvenient government oversight,” he said.

The second part of the Employee Free Choice Act that is problematic is the arbitration regulation. Instead of workers ratifying an agreement, the act would give management and the union only 120 days to come to an agreement, then a third-party arbitrator would be brought in to settle with a binding contract that lasts no less than two years.

“This is the second half to a very ugly picture on card check,” Quarles said.

California has had a version of card check in place for agriculture since Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Ag Labor Relations Act into state law in 1975. That act created the Ag Labor Relations Board, and the powers have been expanded over the years to include a mandatory arbitration law when negotiations go beyond 180 days, said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League. Bedwell is part of the coalition Agriculture for a Democratic Workplace that is working to defeat the card check legislation.

“EFCA is very important because it begins to affect segments that haven’t been affected,” he said.

A card check plan similar to the one in Congress has been proposed in California, but has been vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice. SB-180, proposed in 2007, would have eliminated the secret ballot in union votes, and a revised version in 2008 would have allowed for secret ballots on cards or mediated elections. The 2009 version is pure card check, Bedwell said, and the supporters are tying passage to heat stress and worker safety. What concerns Bedwell is that card check takes away employee choice rather than providing for more freedom, as the name implies. In California, 60 percent to 80 percent of workers sign for a secret election vote, but in almost every case the unions are defeated in the election, he said. What that tells him is that the unions are influencing workers to sign for the vote, but workers express their true decision in the secret ballot, and card check takes that away. However, the unions would say that management is influencing workers to vote against the unions in the elections.

Quarles said the unions have spent as much as $500 million helping supportive legislators get elected during the last election cycle, and there are more than enough votes in the House for it to pass there. The Senate has the 60 votes needed to pass, and if it passes both chambers, there’s little doubt that President Obama will sign it into law. He was a co-sponsor of the bill last year in the Senate.
To combat the Employee Free Choice Act, United Fresh and other agricultural organizations have partnered with Agriculture for a Democratic Workplace and with a general business coalition spearheaded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“This has huge ramifications,” Bedwell said. “This creates a system that guarantees unionization … That will lead to higher administrative costs that are very hard to justify at this time.”

Quarles said card check would be won or lost on a handful of Senate seats, so there is a grassroots campaign focused on key seats in the Midwest and Northeast. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., is a vote the coalition believes can be swayed because she is in cycle and her state is home to large businesses, including Wal-Mart. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., took over Ken Salazar’s seat after Salazar was named Secretary of the Interior, so he’s also in cycle and a possible vote against the act. The third target of the grassroots campaign is Arlen Specter, D-Pa., who was the lone Republican to vote for the bill last time around. However, Specter announced in late April that he had switched parties, so he is now less likely to oppose to the bill as he moves into his next election cycle.

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