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Unions Take A Hit With Employee Free Choice Act Compromise

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Moderate Democrats have forced a key compromise to the Employee Free Choice Act, which removes one of the labor community's most cherished provisions from the bill.

On Thursday, The New York Times reported that a half-dozen senators "friendly to labor" decided to drop the majority sign-up provision from the Employee Free Choice Act. The measure would have made it easier to organize workers by allowing the formation of a union once more than 50 percent of workers signed cards in support of it.

Critics had dubbed the provision "card check" and had pledged to fight any legislative vehicle that contained it. Faced with the possibility of a heated political fight and a dead-certain filibuster, several major unions and congressional allies tried to muster the 60 Senate votes needed for cloture. The avenues weren't there. And over the past two months, compromise approaches were bandied about to push forward EFCA's other major provisions.

The compromise legislation, as described to the Huffington Post, will contain several major labor priorities including requiring shorter time periods for a union election and containing some form of binding arbitration to prevent employers from dragging out a contract negotiation process. The measures, according to AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale, will let workers choose to join a union without intimidation, ensure that those who join a union get a first contract, and institute meaningful penalties for violations of labor law.

"No matter what, this is still HUGE labor law reform," emailed one union official.

"There is no official or final deal, negotiations are still ongoing," said another union hand. "We're going to pass a bill that is the biggest reform of labor law since the Wagner Act."

Still, the removal of the card-check provision is a shot in the gut to a labor community that saw in the Democratic Congress and the Obama White House, the conduits they needed to pass their legislative priorities. While Sen. Al Franken's seating in Minnesota provided the party with a 60th caucusing member to beat back a GOP filibuster attempt, moderates like Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) and others had expressed skepticism, if not downright opposition, to EFCA's original incarnation.

In conversations with reporters, union officials are insisting that this is the natural process by which a bill becomes law. They also aren't officially dropping the conversation on a majority sign up.

"As we have said from day one, majority sign up is the best way for workers to have the right to choose a voice at their workplace," read a statement from Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern. "The Employee Free Choice Act is going through the usual legislative process, and we expect a vote on a majority sign-up provision in the final bill or by amendment in both houses of Congress."

Privately, union hands and progressives are sniping at what they view as a poorly handled legislative strategy. From the start of the Congress, the labor community was seemingly on the defensive, facing what promised to be a withering and well-funded attack from the business community. They tried to plan accordingly. But when Senate Democrats began airing their concerns with the bill, there was little pushback from the grassroots community. Instead, talk of compromise began almost immediately.

The process was supposed to go on in secret, but discussion were leaked to the Times on Thursday. An anonymous official with the AFL-CIO, was quoted in the piece prompting speculation that the union federation was responsible for the leak.

How this affects the broader debate remains to be seen, though the worry among progressive is that it may strengthen the hand of the moderate Democrats who are looking for an even more watered-down bill. A vote on the final product is expected in the fall.

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