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The Employee Free Choice Act, sometimes called "card check," is legislation aimed at strengthening the labor movement by changing the way unions organize workers and also by helping workers reach agreements with employers more easily. According to the AFL-CIO, there are three main goals of EFCA.
1)Remove current obstacles to employees who want collective bargaining.
2) Guarantee that workers who can choose collective bargaining are able to achieve a contract.
3) Allow employees to form unions by signing cards authorizing union representation.
"Card check" refers to the legislation's provision that would allow workers to unionize simply by signing a card, rather than voting by secret ballot.
EFCA supporters say the legislation would give workers more power over the decision to unionize, and limit the power of employers to block workers' efforts to bargain and organize. The legislation would also help workers by providing mediation and arbitration for first contract dispute, and establishing stronger penalties for violations of employee rights when workers seek to form a union.
Those who oppose EFCA claim that voting via something other than secret ballots is unconstitutional. They say it also takes rights away from employers, including the right to refuse to deal with a union. Business interests argue that the legislation will cripple them in an already bad climate. "It will be a boot on the throat of business and it will compound exponentially the economic difficulties that American businesses are suffering today," Mark McKinnon, spokesman for the anti-EFCA business group the Workforce Fairness Institute, told CBS.
Supporters say unionizing workers is one step towards rebuilding the nation's economy. According to the AFL-CIO, union members are 52 percent more likely to have job-provided health care, nearly three times more likely to have guaranteed pensions, and earn 28 percent more than nonunion workers.
Although officials in the labor movement say the legislation has strong support, several key Democrats are now wavering on the bill. According to The Wall Street Journal, at least six senators who voted to move forward with the legislation are having doubts, which may leave Democratic leaders shy of the 60 votes needed to pass.
The legislation is divisive and distracting, said Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln in an interview Monday. The Democratic lawmaker, who was previously seen as a supporter, said the Senate should focus on creating jobs and improving the U.S. economy. "I have 90,000 Arkansans who need a job, that's my No. 1 priority," she said. The legislation, she said, would be "divisive and we don't need that right now. We need to focus on the things that are more important."
Sen. Lincoln is one of several moderate Democrats expressing doubts about the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill would allow unions to organize workers without a secret ballot, giving employees the power to organize by simply signing cards agreeing to join. A second provision would give federal arbitrators power to impose contract terms on companies that fail to reach negotiated agreements with unions. Both provisions are strongly opposed by business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Concern that EFCA wouldn't pass began mounting earlier this month as officials realized that they might lose support from Democratic moderates, especially considering the other issues facing the Senate is currently facing, according to a senior official involved in getting EFCA passed into law.
Part of the issue, he noted, was that the party is in the midst of tackling vast economic challenges, essentially forcing EFCA (and various other key bills) to the backburner. But the new concern was that Republicans may be able to successfully pick off a member of the caucus if the issue comes to a vote.
"There are no guarantees that this thing can get past cloture," said the official. And it's not because of Republican opposition, he added. "You've got Pryor and Lincoln who might not support it. There is Baucus, Landrieu, and even Bayh. And then there is Nelson of Nebraska."
However, union officials subsequently insisted they were certain the votes were all there.
A spokesperson for the AFL-CIO told the Huffington Post that the union's legislative team and whip counters are "100 percent confident" that EFCA will pass. Without giving away who the Republican targets would be -- Democrats will need at least one GOP Senator to defect for a cloture vote ending debate -- the official offered the following optimistic outlook.
"We are not worried at all. The Secretary of Labor and [Vice President] Biden both are coming to our Executive Council meeting and demonstrating their commitment to working Americans and re-building an economy that works for everyone. [Labor Secretary Hilda] Solis spoke at length last night about how important the Employee Free Choice Act was to helping America's workers and rebuilding the middle class. She also made sure to remind everyone that her and Obama were co-sponsors of the Employee Free Choice Act. Right now our analysis is simple. The House will pass it, the Senate will pass it, Obama will sign it, and America's working people will benefit."
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett may have done some damage to EFCA when he told CNBC that he's against the bill.
"I think the secret ballot's pretty important in the country," said the Oracle from Omaha. "I'm against card check to make a perfectly flat statement."
Business interests, of course, are clearly at odds with the Employee Free Choice Act. And while Buffett is a progressive on many causes -- chief among them tax policy -- he is, at his heart, a businessman.
Rachel Maddow broke down the basics about the EFCA debate on her March 9 show. Watch: