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The Card-Check Battle, Round Two


Business opposes a bill in Congress that would make it easier for workers to join unions. Labor, meantime, hopes to win over moderates

In this time of political clashes, nothing is generating more heat in Washington than the fight over card check. The debate is reaching a critical stage.

Card check is the nickname for a legislative proposal by labor to make it easier for workers to unionize. Today companies can demand that workers who want a union vote by secret ballot. Labor officials instead want workers to opt for union representation simply by signing a card. Once 51% of the workers had signed a pro-union card, the company would have to ink a contract with the union within 120 days—or face binding arbitration.

Card check has aroused the ire of business and the GOP. "We are going to kill it," vows Steven J. Law, the general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber says the bill, which has just been introduced into both houses of Congress, would open workers to intimidation by unions and deprive management of the chance to make its case in an organized vote. The unions say it's the companies that do the intimidating, not them.

Right now the GOP is gaining the upper hand in the Senate by drawing moderate Democrats toward their camp, potentially depriving labor of the 60 votes it needs. The Democrats know President Barack Obama cannot afford a big defeat, so they are starting to talk compromise. "I wouldn't be supportive of what's introduced, but I'm keeping my options open to see what amendments come forward," says Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has strong ties to business, has also signaled a desire to bridge the two camps.

If labor pulls back from the most controversial parts of the bill, that might provide cover for the hesitant—such as Nelson and fellow Democrats Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas—to sign up. "There is searching [for a solution] going on," says William B. Gould IV, a former head of the National Labor Relations Board who now teaches at Stanford Law School. Gould has discussed alternatives with the staff of Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Adds Gould: "It's unclear at this point what the precise substance will be, but people are looking for options."

One possible compromise: Retain the secret ballot but require companies to hold an election for a union shortly after workers indicate interest in one. One aide to Nelson says Congress might also stiffen the largely toothless penalties for companies that delay elections or otherwise violate collective bargaining laws. Those changes might eliminate the long waits before balloting that, the Democrats argue, give companies the chance to scare employees into rejecting unions. The mandate for binding arbitration might also be weakened.

Senator Specter could be key to any deal. At least one GOP vote will be needed for passage—and he's the only Republican to show any sympathy so far toward card check. While he argues that the time is not yet ripe for a compromise, he comes from a pro-union state and he co-authored a law journal article exploring alternatives similar to some now on the table.

Everyone involved says it's still early to call the outcome of the battle. The AFL-CIO and United Auto Workers insist they have the votes to win, but others are more cautious. Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, believes the unions have the 60 votes needed to bring the bill to the floor of the Senate for a full debate. But he knows changes may be needed to guarantee passage. "There are a lot of different ideas floating around," he says. "We'll ask Blanche Lincoln and the others what would make the bill work for them. And we'll listen."

Sasseen is Washington bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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