U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao attacked the “card check” bill Friday at a news conference in Scottsdale, saying the union-backed legislation designed to make it easier to organize American workers would take away the “fundamental” American right to a secret-ballot election.
The Employee Free Choice Act, the U.S. House passed 241-185 in March, is about to be taken up in the Senate, where Republicans are threatening a filibuster.
“We are fighting for the right of workers to have access to private-ballot elections,” said Chao, who added that President Bush would veto the measure if it reaches his desk.
The card check bill is the top legislative priority of organized labor and has strong support among Democrats.
The bill approved by the House would amend the National Labor Relations Act to allow a labor union to represent workers in collective bargaining negotiations with management if 50 percent of the workers in the bargaining unit sign a card asking for union representation.
The two sides would have 120 days to reach a wage agreement or they would be required to accept binding arbitration under the supervision of federal mediators.
Current law requires unions to obtain 30 percent of the workers to sign cards, which triggers a private-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. If 50 percent of the workers in the bargaining unit vote for union representation in the election, the union can represent the workers.
Labor unions have long objected to the private-ballot election, saying employers often use tactics to delay elections and use the election campaign process to engage in threats and intimidation to derail union recognition.
“There are many tactics that can be used by employers to dirty the air around an election,” said Rebekah Friend, executive director of the Arizona AFL-CIO. “They can hold captive audience meeting, have the ability to give out erroneous information without fear of reprisal. They can control the climate during that election while union organizers have limited access.”
‘A FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS ISSUE’
Friend believes the bill will pass the Senate because “I think most people get this issue. It is a fundamental rights issue.”
But Chao said the privateballot election should be preserved because “it is fundamental to our democracy.” She said the secret-ballot provision was put in the original labor relations act because of concerns that workers were being intimidated by union organizers and needed that protection.
Both sides agree that if the bill becomes law, it would increase the lagging union membership in the U.S. — currently at about 12 percent of the work force.
Unions are successful in organizing work groups about half the time when elections are held but about 80 percent of the time when employers have voluntarily agreed to the card check procedure, Chao said.
Chao made her comments after speaking at a conference of the National Association of Hispanic Publications at the Hilton Scottsdale Resort, in which she said the Labor Department is focusing on training programs that give workers the skills that will be needed for jobs of the future.
During the next decade, she said, 1.8 million jobs will open in the United States in the building trades, 700,000 in vehicle repair, 1.3 million for computer specialists, 3.5 million in education and library occupations, 2.1 million in business and financial operations, and 4.9 million in health care.
“Two-thirds of all the new jobs being created require higher skills and more education,” she said. “By definition, these jobs pay above average wages, but workers will require post-secondary education to access these opportunities.”
She said there is a mismatch between the skills required for the new jobs and the skills of some workers, a gap the department is trying to close with its training programs.
“What we are seeing is not so much a wage gap in our country as a skills gap,” she said.