Proposed bill could make union organizing easier

Posted December 11, 2008 4:05 p.m. EST
Updated December 11, 2008 7:20 p.m. EST

— As workers at the Smithfield Foods Inc. hog-processing plant in Bladen County on Thursday completed one of the most contentious union votes ever in North Carolina, pending federal legislation could make future votes unnecessary.

The Employee Free Choice Act, which passed the U.S. House last year but has been bogged down in the Senate ever since, would amend federal labor laws to allow for greater use of "card checks" to form unions. Under the proposal, the National Labor Relations Board would have to certify a union without ordering a secret-ballot election if a majority of the workers in a plant signed authorization cards.

President-elect Barack Obama supports the legislation, but critics say the bill would make it harder for workers to reject a union.

"This (bill) will be bad for North Carolina's economy. This will cost North Carolina jobs. This will raise the cost of doing business," said Sherry Melton, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Chamber.

State business leaders are worried about opening the door for more unions, especially as the economy crumbles, Melton said.

"What we hear most often is North Carolina's low unionization rate and talented labor pool are two of the main reasons (companies locate and expand) here," she said.

North Carolina is one of the least unionized states in the country, with close to 97 percent of workers lacking union representation. As a so-called "right-to-work state," even when a business is unionized, employees aren't required to join.

"This is a 'right-to-work-for-less' state," said James Andrews, president of the state chapter of the AFL-CIO. "We are in this (national economic) mess because of the mentality of the free market run wild – businesses do whatever you want to satisfy business."

Workers need unions more than ever in the tough economy, Andrews said.

"It is a way to protect the middle class and get folks and workers that want to bargain to the bargaining table and begin to move wages – stagnant wages – up again," he said.

Chuck Wright, who runs a property maintenance company with 70 employees, said that he treats his workers fairly because it's good business, not because a union forces his hand.

"I will not run a business for one minute while it's unionized." Wright said. "I don't know what they say about 'the man' back there (among employees). I may not like to know; maybe a good thing I don't know. But I do know our guys stay with us a long time."