WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed a Federal Aviation Administration bill on Monday that includes an anti-union measure bitterly opposed by labor groups.
The bill, which modernizes America's air traffic control system and funds the FAA through 2014, was fought over for four years, leading to a partial shutdown of the FAA last summer because of anti-union measures added by the Republican-controlled House.
It passed 75 to 20, with a majority of Democrats backing it.
Among the controversial provisions were changes to labor law for rail and airline workers -- backed by the airline industry -- that would count anyone who did not vote in an election for a union as voting against it, making it much more difficult to certify attempts to organize new unions.
That measure was stripped in a conference committee to work out differences between the Senate and House versions of the bill, only to be replaced by another that raises the threshold for seeking a union from requiring 35 percent of workers' signatures to requiring half.
Unions mounted a last minute push against the measure Monday, including sending out a letter signed by 19 labor groups hammering Democrats for giving into the House.
"Rewarding the House Republican Leadership's desire to rewrite decades of long standing labor law in a flash by inserting an unrelated and controversial labor provision in a much needed aviation safety and security bill, without notice, hearing, or debate, sets an extremely dangerous precedent," says the letter, led by Communications Workers of America.
Senators who voted for the bill, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, praised it as a good compromise and a vital step forward for the country's air traffic control system.
"I happen to think it's a very, very good bill," Rockefeller said.
A number of his Democratic colleagues, however, agreed with the unions, saying Congress was caving in to a few powerful airlines.
"The only entity that [the old union vote system] apparently doesn't work for is the management of a few powerful airlines," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "These powerful companies don't want workers to have representation. They don't want to engage in collective bargaining with their workers. They're deeply concerned, I guess, that at some point in the future they just might have to put a few additional dollars into middle class workers' pockets."
While Harkin called the changes to labor law "less detrimental" than the original language, he was still among the senators to vote against the bill.
"My vote is to stand up against the notion that a federal agency [the National Mediation Board] and the American workers it is charged to protect should be punished for doing what is right, what is fair, what is within their jurisdiction, and to stand up against a process that allows the few and the powerful to hijack this body, to change the rule of the game in their favor," Harkin said.
The bill now goes to President Obama.