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Baton Rouge Business Report - A More Imperfect Union

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By David Jacobs (Contact)

The Employee Free Choice Act—or "card check" bill—has the potential to fundamentally alter the relationship between employers and labor unions, but it's been nowhere near the top of the election-season agenda. But scratch the surface, and you'll quickly find strong opinions.

"In my viewpoint, the card check bill, which Sen. [Mary] Landrieu voted for and in fact sponsored, is the most anti-business piece of legislation considered by the U.S. Congress in the last decade," says State Treasurer [and Senate candidate] John Kennedy. "I know that's a bold statement, but it's true."

Landrieu, of course, disagrees. She cites endorsements from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO as proof that she's centrist, not anti-business. She says the act would only make the unionization process fairer to workers.

"I don't think people should be bullied into joining a union, and I don't think they should be kept from joining one," Landrieu says.

Currently, union organizers ask workers to sign a document saying they'd like to be represented. If 50% plus one signs up, organizers can ask the employer to recognize the union. Usually, the employer refuses to do so and instead calls for an election by secret ballot. The proposed act would force employers to recognize the majority sign-up process whether they like it or not.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved the change last year, largely along party lines, but the proposal stalled in the Senate. The possibility of a Democratic president and a 60-vote, filibuster-proof Democratic Senate majority after the Nov. 4 election means the act could have new life in next year's Congress.

Opponents say the card-check method is inherently undemocratic and argue the secret ballot is a near-sacred right. While the EFCA would not eliminate traditional elections, many say the secret ballot would become obsolete because card-check organizing gives unions a much better shot.

Various business groups, including the U.S. Chamber, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and Louisiana Chemical Association, have come out against the idea. Landrieu and other supporters insist the change would just give employees a second option for organizing a union, one that would be less susceptible to undue pressure from employers.

The idea that democracy starts and ends with a secret ballot is ridiculous, argues Josh Goldstein of American Rights at Work, a liberal advocacy group. He cites a quote from President Bush, who denounced a June election in Zimbabwe: "You can't have free elections if a candidate is not allowed to campaign freely and his supporters aren't allowed to campaign without fear of intimidation." By that standard, union elections are not free elections, Goldstein says.

For one thing, employers have total access to their employees during business hours, while union campaigning can be limited to a poster in the break room. Only 30% of employees in a given workplace must sign cards to request an election. Employers tend to hold out as long as they can before holding an election, often to the point where organizers just give up. American Rights at Work says workers who request a National Labor Rights Board election never have a chance to vote four times out of 10, and says its own study shows employees claim some sort of intimidation by employers nearly half the time.

While employers can't legally intimidate or threaten to fire employees who vote pro-union, they can hold group or one-on-one meetings to try to talk workers out of unionizing. In majority sign-up elections, intimidation by unions is rare, while complaints about employer practices are far less frequent than in secret-ballot elections, Goldstein says. His organization has run television ads locally depicting a cackling corporate CEO and a group of workers on opposite ends of a seesaw, implying that the Employee Free Choice Act would tilt the balance toward workers.

Opponents say a card-check system where everyone knows how you vote allows unions to badger workers until they give in. Some have gleefully portrayed labor organizers as thugs and bullies. The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, one of several business-backed, third-party groups formed to oppose the act, paid for a commercial starring actor Vincent Curatalo, best known as mob boss John "Johnny Sack" Sacramoni on The Sopranos. Curatalo orders a visibly nervous worker to sign up for a union.

Louisianans for Employee Freedom has run full-page ads in The Advocate targeting Landrieu. The group is part of a national organization backed by Washington uber-lobbyist Rick Berman—also known as "Dr. Evil"—who is both renowned and reviled for his work on behalf of the food, tobacco and alcohol industries. Baton Rouge businessman and activist Lane Grigsby is on the group's Louisiana steering committee.

"Right-to-work has prevented unions from growing," Grigsby says, referring to laws in 22 states banning the closed union shop. "It was intended to keep unions from growing. If unions are now able to flourish because of a new way of election, you've negated the effect of right-to-work."

Grigsby, who owns Cajun Industries, also is running his own anti-union campaign and a Web site, Grigsby is working against U.S. Rep. Don Cazayoux, a New Roads Democrat who is running for re-election.

"He stood up and told the citizens of Louisiana that labor unions would be good for the economic development of Louisiana," Grigsby says. "He's absolutely bought and owned by the labor unions if he makes such a stupid remark as that."

Cazayoux and his Nov. 4 opponents, Republican Bill Cassidy and independent Democrat Michael Jackson, did not respond to interview requests. Cazayoux was not yet elected to the House when the Employee Free Choice Act was voted on in 2007.

Martin F. Payson is a labor partner with Jackson Lewis, a national law firm that offers a $695 seminar called "How to Stay Union Free." Payson says he urges employers to create an issue-free workplace, thereby making unions irrelevant. He says employers generally don't accept the majority sign-up method because unions "traditionally engage in harassment, coercion, intimidation and embarrassment to get cards signed."

"The system as it now stands is not broken," Louisiana Chemical Association President Dan Borné says. "I'm not sure how this bill will fix something that's not broke, except to significantly change the balance that now exists in the collective bargaining process. … To take away from an individual his right to a secret ballot is something that we, as supporters of a democratic republic form of government, should have serious concern about."

"I find it ironic that the people who are financing the campaign against it are in no shape or form that I can tell any kind of working folks," says Louis Reine, president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO. "It's financed by major corporations and chambers of commerce. I find it difficult to believe that those people want to spend their money protecting the rights of working people. That would be something new and unique."

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