While it was introduced in both the House and Senate less than one week ago, battle lines already are drawn over The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it easier for employees to organize unions in the workplace.
The chief sponsors of the act are Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).
The bill would dramatically reform labor laws by allowing workers to form unions by simply signing a card or petition, removing an employer’s right to demand a secret ballot vote of employees. The bill also would impose stronger penalties on employers who violate labor laws and allow for arbitration to settle contract disputes.
The bill pits labor interests against business interests in a hot-button issue that could have impact on employers in all industries.
Several Milwaukee-area elected officials already have voiced opposition and support for the bill.
"I’m in favor of protecting workers’ rights to a secret ballot," said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Janesville). "The so-called Employee Free Choice Act would deny them that right."
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls) he is "strongly opposed" to the bill.
"This destroys the balance between labor and management," Sensenbrenner said. "The secret ballot is a way of ensuring there is no intimidation between the union and management. We’ve come full circle here. It’s the unions now that want to do the intimidation."
Sensenbrenner believes there is a more than 50 percent chance that the federal law will change because there are fewer Republican votes to filibuster, and "this president will sign it."
The best chance for defeating the bill is in the Senate, Sensenbrenner said.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Milwaukee) said the senator is planning on voting for cloture and may be supporting amendments in the Senate. A vote for cloture in the Senate is one way to defeat a filibuster.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Madison) is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill and was a sponsor of a previous, similar piece of legislation introduced in 2007.
"One of the best things we can do for American workers is to remove obstacles that make it harder for them to form and join unions," Feingold said when he introduced the previous proposal. "Far too many Americans are working for wages that keep them at or below the Federal poverty line with little, if any, opportunity to bargain for better wages and benefits or advance to a better-paying position."
Annie Wacker, vice president of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, said falling wages and rising health care costs make the bill necessary for workers today.
"Wages are lower and health care (costs) is rising and we’re in danger of losing the middle class," she said. "People who organize are able to bargain to help raise their wages and benefits, which helps stimulate the economy."
Employers, who are more than likely opposed to the proposed changes, can benefit from a unionized work force, according to Wacker.
"Statistically, you have a workforce that is better-trained, works safer and employee turnover is less," she said. "And you have a more committed to company workforce. Unions aren’t going to do anything to drive business away. That makes no sense. We want the jobs. We want to help create a strong local and national economy. It is in our best interest because we work."
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), the largest business advocacy group in the state, is opposed to the change.
"The ironically named ‘Employee Free Choice Act’ (EFCA) would deny American workers the opportunity to cast a ballot in an election to determine whether they want organized union representation in their workplace," said James Haney, president of the WMC. "This federal legislation would mandate a check card system for union recognition in the United States. American workers should have the same rights as their fellow citizens to cast a private ballot in the workplace on union representation."
The EFCA’s proposal for binding arbitration could result in workplace negotiations being decided by federal arbitrators, Haney said.
"This approach to contract deliberations often discourages negotiations and usually ends up placing important matters of government fiscal policy in the hands of third party arbitrators," Haney said. "It is difficult to imagine American businesses, subject to binding arbitration contracts, remaining competitive in the global marketplace."
The WMC has organized a series of briefings to tell its members about the changes contained in the EFCA. For information about the briefings, click here.
For more information about the EFCA from WMC, click here.