Labor Bill Could Have Big Impact in Illinois

January 28, 2009

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A battle is heating up over the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill's been called the biggest potential change in federal labor law in more than 60 years. It never got beyond the U.S. Senate during the Bush years. But Democrats have increased their majorities in Congress. And President Barack Obama says he supports the legislation. Unions say the Employee Free Choice Act would level their playing field with employers. Business groups say it would just drive up labor costs. Both sides say it would be a game changer in Illinois.

Ask a union organizer named Dave Webster what he thinks of the Employee Free Choice Act, and he'll take you here to Chicago's South Side.

WEBSTER: Right now we're standing in front of the Comcast location in the historic Pullman district. We're at the East Gate, where the majority of the workers pull out in the morning after coming in to get their trucks and tools and stuff.

Webster works for Local 21 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Last year the union targeted the building's 200 technicians, warehouse workers and payment agents.

WEBSTER: We spent many hours here, handing out leaflets, talking to workers...

...and convincing many of them to sign cards saying they wanted the union to negotiate their wages, benefits and work conditions.

Comcast didn't recognize the union. That led the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election to see what the workers wanted. The balloting didn't happen for almost six weeks. Webster says the company took advantage of that lag.

WEBSTER: Comcast would plant supervisors to stand out here and watch which workers were taking the flyers, which workers were talking to organizers and basically scare them with their job so that they wouldn't talk to union organizers.

The union lost the election by 20 votes. Comcast declined to speak with WBEZ about the union's accusations.

The labor board sustained a union complaint about Comcast's surveillance at the gate and ordered a repeat of the election. But the union lost again. Organizers say that scenario shows where the proposed federal legislation could make a difference.

BOBO: The Employee Free Choice Act would not mandate that workers choose a union.

Kim Bobo of Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice is campaigning nationally for the bill.

BOBO: It does mandate that they have an opportunity to do it free of intimidation and harassment, which is what happens right now when workers try to organize.

Here's what would happen if the legislation passed. A worksite's employees could form or join a union as soon as a majority of them signed authorization cards. Once the labor board certified the union, the company would have 10 days to start bargaining. In most cases, there would be no election.

That bothers Todd Maische of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

MAISCHE: Labor will go ahead and try to exert as much outside pressure as possible to force these employers to turn over employee addresses and lists, so that the cards can be collected at home. And this is a process that we think is rife [with] intimidation and abuse, and it's something that we're very concerned about.

Labor and business groups agree that the Employee Free Choice Act could reverse a decades-old decline in the proportion of workers represented by a union. In Illinois, according to the U.S. Labor Department, that number has fallen to less than one in six. Both sides say the bill would help unions make inroads with Illinois employers ranging from hospitals to banks to big-box retailers.

What they don't agree on is just how such union expansion would affect the ailing economy. Business groups say the bill would make matters worse.

MAISCHE: In Illinois, the average personal income is falling.

That's Todd Maische again.

MAISCHE: The proper focus ought to be deciding which industries are going to be providing the high-paying jobs that we've lost in the past, not to saddle more and more businesses with an inefficient and a perhaps crushing economic burden of a unionized workforce.

Supporters of the Employee Free Choice Act counter that if more workplaces went union, it could lead to higher wages, increased consumer demand and, ultimately, more production and job creation. They also say the bill could help unions gain a stronger foothold and lift wages in the nation's South. That would help rust-belt states like Illinois compete for jobs.

ambi: East Gate.

Here at Comcast, the debate is less theoretical. The IBEW's Dave Webster says the bill would make it harder for management to interfere in union activities.

In a statement, Comcast says the Employee Free Choice Act would strip workers of their right to vote in secret-ballot elections.

Federal law allows the union to try again as early as this fall.

Chip Mitchell, WBEZ.