If you think the battles in Washington, D.C., over the economic stimulus package have been painful to watch (and that's certainly been the case for me), I'm sorry to report there's another issue waiting to take center stage that promises to stir up equally nasty debates during this session of Congress.
Officially, the proposed legislation is called the Employee Free Choice Act. The title sounds harmless enough, but battle lines already are forming over "Card Check," as the act is called in Capitol Hill jargon.
Democrats first introduced Card Check in the House and Senate during the 108th Congress. It passed in the House in March 2007 for the first time but was filibustered by Senate Republicans in June 2007. With the Democrats taking the White House and increasing their majorities in both the House and the Senate in the 2008 elections, passage of the EFCA will likely be a priority for them in the 111th Congress, which began considering legislation this year.
Under current law, an employer can voluntarily recognize a union if the union demonstrates that a majority of the relevant employees supports representation through signed authorization cards or other means. However, if the employer questions the validity of the union's showing of support, it can refuse to grant voluntary recognition. In such a case the union can petition the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a secret-ballot election among the employees.
According to a study released by the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, EFCA has three major provisions: replacing secret ballot elections with a card-check process, compulsory binding arbitration for first contracts, and increased unfair labor practice sanctions applied to employers.
According to the AFL-CIO, nearly 60 million U.S. workers say they would join a union if they could. But when workers try to gain a voice on the job by forming a union, employers routinely respond with intimidation, harassment and retaliation, labor organizers say.
The AFL-CIO, announcing a campaign to build support for the EFCA in January, called it, "a vital bill to restore the freedom to form unions and bargain and make the economy work for everyone."
Business interests understandably don't share organized labor's high opinion of EFCA.
When Jeff Shoaf, senior executive director of government & public affairs for the Associated General Contractors of America, spoke at the AGC of Washington's annual membership meeting in January, he had a two-word description for it: "forced unionization."
Shoaf said AGC supports the status quo, which remains the most fair and reliable way to determine the desire of employees to be represented by a union.
Legal scholar Richard Epstein, in a study titled the Case Against the Employee Free Choice Act, says there are countless risks to job creation, small businesses and overall economic growth that would result from this legislation. He criticizes the justification supporters cite for EFCA and the long-term implications to small businesses, corporations, and overall economic growth should it become law.
Epstein summarizes the economic impact by suggesting that, "The bottom line, therefore, is that the passage of EFCA will create huge dislocations in established ways of doing business that will in turn lead to large losses in productivity."
This issue is especially important to the construction industry, because it's such a local business. Contractors need people to work on job sites in their local communities. They don't have the option of shipping jobs to a right-to-work state or overseas to push labor costs down, like businesses in some other industries tend to do.
As a senator, Barack Obama helped lead the fight for the Employee Free Choice Act, and he has promised to sign the bill as president if it passes in Congress. I know the Democrats feel an obligation to push Card Check because of the strong support party candidates got from organized labor in the last election. But the last thing this nation needs while we try to hold off the worst economic crisis in 70 years is a big fight over Card Check playing out in the halls of Congress and beyond.
The president has called for "change" from traditional partisan bickering during the fight over the stimulus package, and that message also applies here as well. Just because the Democrats may have the political muscle to pass EFCA this session doesn't mean they should start pressing the issue right away.
I don't know if there will ever be a time when passing Card Check is a good idea. But I do believe one thing: This isn't that time.