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New Congress Changes Prospects for Labor Unions

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

This past week the House of Representatives passed the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that supporters say will make it easier for employees to join unions. Republicans in the Senate say they'll try to block the bill. If it passes, President Bush says he'll veto it.

Union membership in the United States has been steadily declining for years. Labor leaders hope that last November's Democratic takeover of Congress is an opportunity to begin to reverse that trend.

We're joined now by Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Welcome to the program, Professor.

Professor RICHARD HURD (Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations): It's a pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: Can you briefly tell us a little more about the Employee Free Choice Act?

Prof. HURD: Yes. This is a bill that would allow workers to choose a union to represent them by signing what are known as authorization cards or a petition basically supporting the union. And if a majority of the workers indicated their support for a particular union as their representative to negotiate terms and conditions of employment, then the National Labor Relations Board would be charged with certifying that that information is accurate and then the employer would be required to negotiate with them.

HANSEN: Why do unions say that this is needed?

Prof. HURD: Under the current law, unions file a petition for a representation election with the National Labor Relations Board once they have at least 30 percent of the workers signed. And that's the requirement of the law. Most unions in practice actually get something like two-thirds who have signed up to support them before they ask for an election, because during the course of the election campaign, the employer uses very aggressive tactics to persuade workers not to support the union.

HANSEN: What are business groups saying about the bill?

Prof. HURD: Well, business groups say that using this process where you just simply have to sign on a card is not democratic. It does not give workers the opportunity to cast a secret ballot. And so they argue that it would give unions the opportunity to intimidate workers during the organizing campaign by pressuring them to sign these authorization cards. So that's at least the rationale for their opposition.

HANSEN: The unions are calling the bill one way to stop this membership decline by making it easier, but are the unions doing anything else?

Prof. HURD: Yes. Unions are definitely engaged not only in political action of this sort and in other forms of political action that actually give them more leverage with employers; they're also actively organizing workers in the context of the current law and trying to develop ways to pressure employers to reach agreements with them.

Most unions today when they try to organize workers do it outside of the context of the current law, not violating the law, but not attempting to go through the National Labor Relations Board election process because they feel that the playing field there is not level.

HANSEN: What type of workers and businesses does labor want to organize now?

Prof. HURD: I think it's clear that unions are trying to figure out how to organize those parts of the workforce where employment numbers are growing. So they need to organize in the service sector. They need to organize more white-collar workers, more professional and technical workers. But they're not prepared to ignore blue-collar workers, manufacturing workers, sort of their bread and butter in the past.

HANSEN: Okay, so say the bill does pass the Senate, and if it does there probably won't be enough votes to override a presidential veto. Even with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, is labor much better off?

Prof. HURD: Certainly labor can get a better hearing. And will labor be able to achieve its legislative objectives in every way? No, that's not going to happen. That's not been the history of labor's relationship with Congress. Labor does not have its own political party. They have to appeal to the political parties that we have. So they have to influence those people who hold office.

But it could easily be paving the way for 2009 if labor and their allies in the Democratic Party and what allies they have in the Republican Party - and they do have some - are able to win enough elections to gain true control of the Senate and have someone in the White House that would be sympathetic on legislation like this.

So I think this is part of a long-term strategy to change the law in a way that - well, at least from a union standpoint - level the playing field.

HANSEN: Richard Hurd is professor of labor studies at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Thank you so much for your time.

Prof. HURD: Yes, it's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.