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14_Latest News - January 2010

14_January 20, 2010
Labor Leaders Digest Senate Setback
By Kris Maher

Labor leaders met by phone Wednesday as the loss of a Democratic Senate seat and the specter of further party defeats in November threw unions' legislative agenda into disarray and further diminished chances of passing a bill to ease organizing.

Officials of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 57 unions, discussed options and strategy, including how to keep the administration and members of Congress focused on pro-labor issues such as jobs and enforcement of trade laws, and beefing up pre-election campaigning for vulnerable Democrats. They also discussed the possibility of salvaging the union-organizing bill, known as Employee Free Choice Act.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, couldn't be reached for comment. Last week, Mr. Trumka predicted that the organizing bill would reach President Barack Obama's desk in the first quarter.

"Congress and the White House need to focus like a laser beam on the jobs issue and failure to do so will have consequences in November," said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO. She declined to comment on specific strategy.

Tuesday's win by Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts dealt a blow to labor's multiyear, multimillion dollar effort to put Democrats in the majority of the House and Senate. Labor officials viewed the 60-vote Democratic majority in the Senate as essential for passing the organizing bill, which would benefit unions by shortening the time period before union-organizing elections, mandating arbitration of first contracts and boosting penalties for employers who violate labor laws.

The bill was already on shaky ground, due to strong opposition from business, Republicans and some moderate Democrats. Now some labor officials believe it's doomed.

"Personally I think that becomes a dead issue for the year 2010," said Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists. "It's an election year and I think people are going to focus on what's most important."

Labor experts agreed that unions' hopes had dimmed. "Any major legislation that's coming out of this Congress that's important to labor is probably not going to happen," said Peter Francia, a political scientist at East Carolina University.

Business groups said there were a number of bills that unions can still push, including one that would change the definition of a supervisor, which could enable unions to organize people in jobs with supervisory duties, such as certain nurses. Other bills would expand paid leave and change rules related to plant-closure announcements. Unions are supporting nominees to the National Labor Relations Board who could revise certain union-organizing rules on their own, without legislation.

"Labor's agenda is stalled and they'll have to drop the big ticket items. But they'll no doubt try to move smaller but still significant initiatives," said Randel Johnson, vice president of labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Buffenbarger said he hoped Tuesday's election would benefit unions in one way, by leading Congress to enact a jobs bill that could include pro-labor provisions, such as requirements that the government purchase items from American companies, including defense concerns where his union represents workers. "The lesson I hope the party takes is what this union has been yelling about for the last three years, jobs," he said.

Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees said Friday that the organizing bill would be taken up after health care. Reached Wednesday, Mr. McEntee said he still believes the bill "is in play."

—Melanie Trottman contributed to this article.



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