Unions' House Victory May Be Fleeting

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Loud banging by business groups wasn't enough to stall a measure that makes it easier for workers to unionize. The Employee Free Choice Act won approval by the Democratic-controlled House on Thursday. While the prospect of their workers unionizing seems to be far from the mind of most small-business owners, opponents of the bill often trotted out the little guy to help justify their position.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao denounced the measure in front of 3,100 people at the International Franchise Association's annual Las Vegas meeting. "Although the title sounds benevolent, the bill is just the opposite," she said. "It takes away workers' choice." In a press release, the IFA called the bill an "anti-small-business measure." Last year, Todd Stottlemyer, president of the National Federation of Independent Business, which calls itself the voice of small business, also warned the group's constituents about the measure. "A small business could find itself unionized in as little as 60 days," he said. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, and the National Retail Federation were among the more than a dozen groups that tried to quash the legislation.

The Employee Free Choice Act would change the way that employees can organize by allowing them to unionize as soon as a majority say they want a union. To declare their intentions, employees could sign "check cards" that would hand over their bargaining rights to unions. Right now, employers use secret-ballot elections to decide whether their employees want to unionize. Labor groups say employers often manipulate secret-ballot voting by threatening workers who want to unionize and delaying the process through lawsuits. Under the bill, workers could unionize in weeks without employer interference.

"It might affect small business more than you think," says Charles Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University. The law would apply to retail companies with more than $500,000 in sales or to any company that has more than $50,000 in purchases or sales with companies that are covered by the National Labor Relations Board. If the threshold seems low, that's because it is, says Craver. The standards were set in the 1950s.

Unions are pushing for the law to stave off extinction, says Craver. Union membership, once 35 percent of private workers, has declined to 7.4 percent now. Unions could use the law to persuade workers to sign check cards without an employer's knowledge. A worker might decide to sign a check card for all kinds of reasons, ranging from misunderstanding its purpose to genuine dissatisfaction, says Craver. While it might be tough to sign up employees without managers noticing at a mom and pop, unions would have an easier time persuading 15 employees rather than 500 to join. That's the sort of scenario that should make a small-business owner "nervous," says Craver. "If I am a small business, I am not making a lot of money," he says. "If unions come in and demand healthcare and higher wages, it will be harder to compete."

But the AFL-CIO says that its organizing campaigns don't target smaller companies. The group argues that higher wages would boost productivity at bigger companies and give consumers more money to spend overall. The union mounted an aggressive lobbying effort to get the bill passed, sending out more than 5 million E-mails. Its House victory will probably be fleeting, though. Senators are expected to filibuster the bill, if necessary, and the White House has said President Bush will veto it if it emerges from Congress.