Though President Obama has signed four executive orders favoring organized labor, the crown jewel for unions -- legislation making it easier for workers to organize -- is yet to come.
The Employee Free Choice Act, commonly called the "card-check bill," that died in the Senate in 2007, is expected to come before Congress again in spring or summer. It is often considered the most significant labor bill since the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 established the ground rules for union organizing.
Under that act, in effect today, at least 30 percent of an employee group must sign cards requesting union representation. Once that threshold is met, the National Labor Relations Board certifies the cards and sets up a private vote. Approval by a majority of eligible employees puts union representation into place.
The new proposal would streamline the process, making unionization easier. Unions would be certified simply by getting a majority of workers to sign cards on the spot, avoiding the whole election process in which employers usually oppose organizing efforts.
Labor leaders strongly favor the new proposal, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes it. Thus both sides "are heavily invested in the outcome of this bill," said William B. Gould, a professor at Stanford Law School and former chair of the National Labor Relations Board. He said card-check could infuse the labor movement with momentum it has not seen in decades.
Unions support the bill simply because it makes the unionization process easier, said James Sherk, a labor expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington.
"Oftentimes, workers that sign the card don't really support the unionization of the company, but sign the card" to get the union organizer "off their backs," Sherk said. "But, facts have shown that once in privacy of the voting booth, they vote no."
Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, said the bill empowers employees.
"The intent of law is pretty clear. It lets the employee decide, not the union or the employer," said Shea, who disagrees with critics who say card-check eliminates the right for employees to have a secret ballot.
"Plain and simple, the right to vote in private is never taken away," he said.
Shea cautions if the law is not passed now, with Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress, "we will never do it."
The addition of 428,000 union members nationwide last year represented the largest growth in membership in two decades. …