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November 11, 2009
Unions Push Issues in State Capitals

Unions are pushing state lawmakers to pass legislation that would make organizing workers easier, as efforts to rewrite federal organizing laws remain stalled in Congress.

Oregon passed the Worker Freedom Act, which prohibits companies from holding mandatory employee meetings to talk about organizing.

Employers say mandatory meetings, known as "captive audience meetings," are necessary to counter misleading information disseminated by union organizers. Unions say employers use the meetings to gauge worker sympathies and pressure workers not to join the union.

It is unclear if the bill -- which was signed into law in June but doesn't take effect until January -- would be pre-empted by federal law. Oregon business groups say it should be and that the state law would violate employers' rights.

"It completely undermines employer speech," said J.L. Wilson, the vice president of government affairs for Associated Oregon Industries, a Salem-based trade group.

The organization said it is planning to file a lawsuit to challenge the law as early as November in U.S. District Court in Oregon.

Mr. Wilson also said the bill was "a political favor" to labor unions.

Diane Rosenbaum, a Democratic Oregon state senator and chief sponsor of the law, denied it was payback for labor's political support and said she believes it will survive a legal challenge. "What this bill says is you can hold these meetings. You just can't force people to attend," she said. "We worked hard with legislative counsel to make sure it will hold up."

Oregon is the only state to pass such a law so far, but it is considered a test case, with developments closely watched by national business groups and state-level labor leaders around the country.

Similar bills prohibiting mandatory workplace meetings about union organizing passed this year in the Connecticut Senate and the Michigan House, both controlled by Democrats, but stalled in each state.

Both sides see the Oregon law as a local variation of the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as card check, which allows unions to organize workers by getting them to sign cards, often without an employer's knowledge.

Patrick Semmens, with The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which opposes efforts to expand unionization, said Oregon's law is similar to card check because both limit an employer's access to workers during union organizing. The Oregon law is "a step toward card check," he said.

In Washington state, Democrats dropped efforts this year to push the Worker Privacy Act, which would ban mandatory meetings about unionization efforts, after an internal state AFL-CIO email was leaked to lawmakers, saying unions wouldn't contribute to state politicians until the bill -- the unions' top priority -- was passed. Democrats said the email raised legal and ethical questions.

In Hawaii, Democratic lawmakers overrode the Republican governor's veto in August to pass a bill that enables unions to organize agriculture and public-sector workers via cards instead of elections.

The law requires employers with annual revenue of at least $5 million and all state and county governments to collectively bargain once a union is certified "without an election."

These state efforts are viewed as a plan B for organized labor frustrated by its inability to get Employee Free Choice Act passed.

"While Congress is still debating the federal legislation, we think it's important to move ahead in states where it's possible to take action," said William Samuel, director of legislative affairs for the AFL-CIO.

The state efforts face stiff headwinds. "There is a noticeably less friendly mood in the country toward unions," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

In the Nov. 3 elections, Republicans won the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey against Democratic opponents who were supportive of union issues.

Write to Kris Maher at




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