Local Politics

Debate rages over union-organizing legislation

Posted July 20, 2009 5:51 p.m. EDT
Updated July 21, 2009 3:50 p.m. EDT

— Pro- and anti-union groups continue to lobby Congress as the Senate nears passage of a controversial bill that could make organizing workplaces easier.

The Employee Free Choice Act would overhaul labor laws to help unions sign up more members. The bill calls for binding arbitration within 120 days if a new union and management can't agree on a first contract and stiffens penalties on businesses that threaten or intimidate workers trying to form a union.

To ensure enough Democrats would back the bill to overcome any Republican filibuster attempt, supporters are trying to convince unions to drop a provision permitting "card check" organizing efforts. Under that provision, 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.

"I believe majority sign-up is the way," said James Andrews, president of the North Carolina chapter of the AFL-CIO labor union. "I believe that this legislation is extremely important if we're going to give workers the right to do what the law says – that is the right to organization and association."

Chuck Wright, who owns the Wright Group, a Raleigh-based property maintenance company, said dropping "card check" wouldn't really soften the bill from his perspective.

"It took a horrible bill that could not pass, and it made it an awful bill that might pass," Wright said. "I went into business to own a business so I'd be in control. Once it becomes union, I'm not in control."

Business groups like the North Carolina Chamber and the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association remain vehemently opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act.

"The North Carolina Chamber will oppose any compromise that is unbalanced and takes away the rights of employers and employees when it comes to important workplace decisions," chamber officials said in a statement. "From the reports we have heard, only unions have been involved in work on a compromise, leaving employers and employees out of the process."

Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr said he still opposes the bill – with or without the "card check" provision – while Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan said she wants to review any proposed changes before taking a stance on the bill.

North Carolina is the least-unionized state in the nation, with about 3 percent of workers represented by unions. Nationwide, more than 12 percent of workers nationwide belong to unions.

Union leaders point to the recent organization and contract at Smithfield Packing's hog-processing plant in Bladen County as a success story and said other companies could follow suit without a problem.

"They're still killing hogs. They're still making a profit. The world continues to go on," Andrews said.