WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told the World today that he is holding onto majority sign-up as a key component of the Employee Free Choice Act, in rounds of “intense negotiations” with senators whose support is needed for passage of the landmark labor law reform measure. Although Harkin would not specify the precise form in which majority sign-up might emerge from the negotiations, he said “there are about five versions of it that are being talked about.”

The senator made the statement as he emerged from a panel discussion on the Employee Free Choice Act this morning at the America’s Future Now conference here.

Former Michigan Rep. David Bonior, now chair of American Rights at Work, reminded several thousand progressive leaders and activists who attended the panel discussion that majority sign-up (also known as “card check”) is already widely used. “It is an efficient, fair and democratic organizing process whereby a majority of employees sign cards to demonstrate their desire to form a union.”

Labor Department records show that since 2003, more than half a million American workers have formed unions through majority sign-up.

Bonior explained how under current labor law, management can refuse to recognize a union even when 100 percent of employees have signed union authorization cards, and even if the employer has no reason to doubt the validity of the cards.

Instead, employers can insist on an election process that enables them to take advantage of weak labor laws and launch a one-sided campaign to intimidate workers out of supporting a union.

“When workers try and form unions,” Bonior said, “90 percent of employers force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with their supervisors, 50 percent coerce workers into opposing unions with bribes and special favors, and 30 percent fire pro-union workers. These elections don’t measure up to the most fundamental standards of democracy.”

Harkin, who took responsibility for shepherding the Employee Free Choice Act through the Senate after Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) became ill, also told the World that he would not allow a bill to go to the floor of the Senate if it “in any way compromises core principles.’

‘There will be a card check compromise but the form it takes must give workers real freedom to choose a union,’ Harkin said. ‘The final bill must incorporate, for workers who form a union, strict deadlines for companies to agree to a contract and there must be meaningful penalties levied against those who violate labor laws.”

Although the senator said he did not want to jeopardize ongoing talks by specifying what the “card check compromises” look like, PWW sources have described several versions. One involves workers mailing completed authorization cards to the National Labor Relations Board, rather than handing them to a union organizer. Another involves checking a box on the card that expresses the individual’s preference for a secret ballot election, and still a third involves workers checking off a box that says “union” or one that says “no union” and mailing that card to the NLRB. In all three scenarios the company would be required to respect the choice of the workers.

Harkin warned that “if, in the final analysis, the negotiations don’t work and some senators refuse to compromise, I have the assurances of Harry Reid (leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate) that the Employee Free Choice Act will go to the floor of the Senate in its original form for a straight up or down vote. Then the voters will see for themselves who in the Senate is really with them or against them.”

The Employee Free Choice Act would put the decision of how to form a union in the hands of workers, not employers. Under the measure, if a majority of workers sign cards voting for a union, and if those cards are validated by the National Labor Relations Board, the agency will certify the workers as a union. The employer would be legally required to recognize the union and bargain with it. Employees could still choose to use their signed cards to petition for an NLRB election.

Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, brought the crowd at the America’s Future Now conference to its feet when he said every Democratic senator must be made to answer the question, “Which side are you on?” (With the expected seating of Al Franken from Minnesota the Democrats will have the 60 votes that could stop a Republican filibuster.) Cohen said, “Either you are for the Chamber of Commerce which makes the same anti-labor arguments now that it made back in the 1930s or you are for the working Americans you represent.”

Cohen said he expected that the Republicans in the Senate would vote “in lockstep” against the bill, “as they voted in lockstep against Social Security in the 1930s.”

jwojcik @ pww.org