SAM HANANEL

The Associated Press

Arbitration is key in fight over union bill, US

Arbitration is key in fight over union bill

SAM HANANEL

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON (AP) -The willingness of some Democrats to drop the "card check" portion of a union organizing bill has led opponents of the measure to intensify their attack on another major provision: Binding arbitration if a new union and management can't agree on a first contract within 120 days.

"We suspected from the beginning that the binding arbitration was packaged with the elimination of the secret ballot in order to create a straw man they could take down later," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

A small group of senators led by Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa is working out a compromise of the Employee Free Choice Act, one of the most polarizing measures in Congress and the top legislative priority of labor leaders, who want to reverse years of declining union membership.

Although Democrats have 60 votes in the Senate, several moderates including Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have insisted they cannot support the bill as is.

Anti-union forces are targeting at least a half-dozen Democrats, and one group spent $1 million this month on TV ads in Nebraska alone, targeting Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson.

For months, business groups focused on fighting "card check," which would allow employees to form a union by signing cards instead of holding secret ballot elections. That changed earlier this month, when some labor leaders and lawmakers indicated they were willing to drop card check from the labor law overhaul if that would help the bill overcome a Senate filibuster.

Arbitration now looms as its most prominent sticking point. Anti-union groups, already spending millions on television advertising, direct mail and lobbying campaigns against the bill, have tweaked their message to stress how damaging they believe arbitration will be to employers.

Labor advocates say they are committed to passing a bill that allows workers to join a union without intimidation, harassment and unfair delays. Once a compromise is reached, Democrats are expected to push for a quick vote sometime after Congress passes health care reform legislation.

"There has to be a dispute resolution mechanism that doesn't allow employers to delay and use that as a last trap door to avoid the employees' decision to have a union," said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

Business groups say arbitration would allow a federal official who knows nothing about a company to suddenly dictate workplace rules including salaries, benefits and vacations.

They also say there is a big difference between settling one dispute via arbitration, and settling an entire contract that way.

"Card check is the political poison in the bill, but forced arbitration is the real poison," said Steven Law, general counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Labor advocates argue the struggle some workers face to get a contract months or even years after voting for a union is a central reason that arbitration need to be part of the bill.

That was the complaint at Central Maine Power Co. when professional workers voted to join a union in 2006. Workers said claim managers used classic stalling tactics that ended only when a National Labor Relations Board office said the company was not bargaining in good faith. A company spokesman declined to comment.

"We had 18 months of just banging your head against the wall and the company just sitting there, not willing to hear you out," said Rodney Curtis, a design technician at the power company in Augusta, Me.

Labor advocates say the Maine workers were actually luckier than others 44 percent of new unions still don't have contracts two years after being certified.

"If there's no contract, then the union hasn't won anything," said Bill Gould, a labor law professor at Stanford Law School and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under President Bill Clinton.

Labor advocates argue that arbitration language is standard in many consumer contracts. If a customer has a dispute about a phone bill, credit card or bank statement, it's settled through arbitration.

"They can't say 'When it comes to solving my problems, arbitration is wonderful, but when it comes to solving your problems, we don't want arbitration,'" said Trumka.

One compromise that lawmakers are considering is to adopt baseball-style "final offer" arbitration, where both sides submit offers and the arbitrator picks one package offer or the other. Proponents of this style say the uncertainty creates an incentive for both sides to agree.

Keith Smith, a spokesman at the National Association of Manufacturers, says baseball arbitration "reduces it to a game of Russian roulette. While that may work in baseball, where you're really just looking at salaries and length of contract terms, it doesn't take into account the comprehensive nature of a collective bargaining agreement."