Healthcare unions and hospitals are gearing up to turn the nations nascent presidential race into a battleground over organized labors push to relax oversight of union elections.
Unions, including healthcare giants such as the United American Nurses and Service Employees International Union, lobbied heavily for a bill that cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on March 1 that would let unions gather signatures instead of hold elections to win new members. The bill faces greater opposition in the Senate and a veto threat from President Bush, but labor organizers have singled out its eventual passage as a priority and vowed the legislation would be in political play until enacted.
That seems unlikely before the 2008 election, making it a key issue for organized labor in upcoming 2008 races. No presidential candidate is going to get labors support without supporting this fundamental right to bargain your way into the middle class, said Susan Bianchi-Sand, national executive director of United American Nurses.
The bill, called the Employee Free Choice Act, passed the House on a lopsided 241-185 vote. Under the legislation, employer penalties for labor violations would be stiffened, and it would require arbitrators to unilaterally settle a first contract if businesses and newly installed unions failed to reach agreement by a set time.
But it is the bills proposal to alter oversight of union elections by the National Labor Relations Board that Bianchi-Sand called the heart of the bill. The American Hospital Association, joined by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, aggressively opposed the act, despite its certain passage in the House. Steve Ahnen, senior vice president of the AHA, said the effort was intended to narrow its margin of victory in the House and sway the Senate.
Unions already can organize workers by collecting signaturescalled a card check, for the cards workers signbut can do so only with an employers consent. Without approval, organizers must hold an election under the NLRBs oversight. Unions argue employers exploit regulated elections to intimidate employees. Opponents of card check elections say such informal systems strip workers of private ballots, leaving them vulnerable to pressure from organizers.
Edward Young, a labor attorney with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, specializing in management issues, said such a dramatic change in union elections could blindside employers unless front-line managers note union recruiting in its earliest, incipient stages.