Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Senate Republicans block Democratic labor bill

Senate Republicans block Democratic labor bill

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Republicans on Tuesday rejected a bill to make it easier to form unions, defeating a drive by newly empowered Democrats to shore up a shrinking constituency -- organized labor.

On a vote of 51-48, Democratic backers fell short of the 60 votes needed to clear a procedural hurdle and move toward passing the legislation.

The measure would have enabled employees to create a union simply by obtaining the signatures of most of their fellow workers rather winning a federally supervised election.

Labor, which has seen union membership plunge in recent years, contends the elections are tilted to favor employers and often result in the unlawful firing of organizers and even threats to close plants.

But traditionally pro-business Republicans blocked the bill, arguing it would violate workers' rights and undermine a hallmark of American democracy -- the secret ballot.

"The principle of a secret ballot is deeply rooted in the American tradition, and workers here have enjoyed this freedom at the workplace by law for 60 years," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

"By preserving the secret ballot in union organizing drives, Republicans made sure America's 140 million workers are not intimidated or coerced into siding with either labor or management," McConnell said.


Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts led the charge for the bill, calling the drive a moral issue backed by religious leaders and civil rights groups.

"Majority sign-up is simple. It's fair, and it ensures that if a majority of workers want a union, they'll get one. There's nothing more democratic than that," Kennedy said.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, warned Republicans who blocked the bill they will be targeted for defeat in the 2008 elections.

"The vote made clear exactly who is on the side of working families' dreams and economic opportunity -- and who is siding with corporate America to block those opportunities," Sweeney said.

Republicans denounced the bill as political payback to union leaders for helping Democrats win control of Congress last year. They also charged the bill would allow union organizers to bully workers, and cited surveys that found most Americans oppose ending the secret ballot at the workplace.

Democrats returned fire by accusing Republicans of stopping the bill on behalf of the business community, much of which has seen its profits soar in recent years while wages of working Americans remain stagnant.

Democrats campaigned on a promise to close the growing gap between rich and poor, and earlier this year kept a vow to raise the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade.

But Democrats' paper-thin Senate majority of 51-49 has thus far prevented them from advancing into law other campaign promises, such as ones to reduce the cost of a college education and prescription drugs and, most importantly, begin a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Iraq war.

The bill blocked by Republicans was a top legislative priority of organized labor, which has sought to increase declining membership.

As of 2006, the most recent year figures are available, 13.1 percent of America's wage and salary workers were represented by unions, down from 23.3 percent in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"The unions are desperate. They are losing the game and now they want to change the rules," said McConnell.