Specter eyes support for Employee Free Choice bill

A spokesperson for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the lead sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act, confirmed today that an agreement is near that will allow Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) to return to his earlier position of support for the legislation.

Specter, originally a co-sponsor of the bill, announced on March 24 that he had switched to the opposition. At the time, as a Republican senator, he was under pressure from business lobbyists and right-wing Republicans lining up against him in that party’s coming primary election.

Since then he switched to the Democratic Party, and today he signaled his willingness to switch back to the pro-union side on the Employee Free Choice Act. He said, “I’m opposed to giving up the secret ballot or mandatory arbitration, as they are set forth in the bill, but I do believe that labor law reform is past overdue.”

Harkin confirmed, early this morning, that “Senator Specter’s staff and my staff have been working diligently over the last several days to get everything ready.”

Harkin was not specific about any particular compromises in the bill that he was willing to make. When a message was left on his answering machine, asking for confirmation of a Bloomberg news report that giving up majority signup was a “possibility,” Harkin’s spokesperson quickly returned the call and insisted there would be “no compromise on any of the core principles.”

Majority sign-up is considered the heart of the bill because it would remove the choice of how to recognize unions – sign-up by a majority of workers or an election – from the employers, who now make that choice, and give it, instead, to the workers. By choosing union representation through majority sign-up, workers reduce the ability of employers to harass, threaten and fire union supporters during a protracted election process.

Some in the labor movement have been saying that Specter would switch back to the union side even if he were offered a face-saving compromise that was little more than cosmetic.

Over the last few weeks a variety of compromises that would not violate core principles have been circulated.

A source in one of the building trades unions told the World last week, for example, that senators were sent letters proposing that a box could be added to the majority sign-up card, and the card would ask the worker filling it out to check the box if he or she wanted the issue to be decided by secret ballot.

Harkin’s office would not confirm whether this was one of the compromises discussed with Specter. Harkin’s spokesperson said he will not budge on the “core principals of leveling the playing field in organizing drives, increasing penalties for labor law violators, and ensuring that once unions are recognized, employers must sign a first contract with them, either voluntarily or through arbitration.”

Observers see these latest developments as boosting the chances of securing 60 votes for the measure in the Senate, blocking a planned Republican filibuster. Specter would presumably be the 60th vote, assuming the eventual seating of Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota, who would be the 59th vote. Republicans have kept that race tied up in the courts, in part, to make passage of employee free choice more difficult.

The labor movement has mounted a herculean effort to help get those 60 votes, with a campaign in each of the states represented by swing senators, including Pennsylvania, Maine, Colorado and Arkansas.

jwojcik @ pww.org