As we predicted in our September 14 piece on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), organized labor’s increased pressure on Congress to pass such legislation is starting to bear fruit. At this week’s AFL-CIO convention, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), a leader in the Democrats’ effort to forge a bill that can withstand a Republican filibuster, announced the outlines of a compromise that he has been discussing with a small group of senators, which he predicted would become law before year-end. Specter’s prediction echoes comments by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who said last week that there had been 60 votes to pass some compromise form of EFCA in July, and that the Senate could act on the bill later this year.

Sen. Specter said that he and his colleagues had reached a “consensus” on three “core principles:”

  • No card check, but speedier elections and union access. Any revised version of EFCA would not include the widely attacked “card check” provision found in the current version of EFCA, under which employees could find themselves represented by a union without any vote. Saying that no bill that did away with secret ballot elections could be passed, Specter described the proposed compromise as requiring such elections to take place promptly after a petition for certification was filed with the National Labor Relations Board (rather than the current approach, which allows elections to take place as late as six weeks later), and giving unions a right to enter the workplace to campaign. Specter did not specify how long the shortened election period would be, or give any details about how and when unions could visit employees at work.
  • Mandatory “baseball style” arbitration. The bill would retain the binding interest arbitration found in the current version of EFCA, so that if an employer and union failed to reach agreement on a first contract within so many days following the election, federal arbitrators could step in and impose an agreement on the parties dictating employees’ wages, benefits, hours, layoff procedures, and so on. To address concerns that this approach would give parties an incentive to make unreasonable proposals, Sen. Specter said the bill would require the arbitrators to adopt the last best offer of one party or the other, so-called “baseball style” arbitration. He said no decision had yet been reached on how long the parties would have to sign a contract before they would be forced into arbitration. The current version of EFCA allows 120 days.
  • Treble back pay. The bill would include significantly increased penalties like those found in the current version of EFCA, under which employers who discharge employees because they join or support a union would face treble back pay.

Shortly after Sen. Specter announced this framework, however, labor officials said they had not agreed to it. Incoming AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said “card check” remained in play, and the AFL-CIO’s director of governmental affairs said the labor federation had not agreed to any compromise. Business leaders were equally dismissive, describing Specter’s approach as permitting “ambush elections,” contracts imposed by a “government-appointed bureaucrat,” and acting as a smokescreen for a last-minute return of card check.

All sides agree that any revision of EFCA cannot and will not move forward until the Democrats have 60 votes, which will depend on when Massachusetts selects a replacement for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Although the special election to replace Kennedy will not take place until January, the Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill that would give the Democratic governor authority to name an interim replacement, meaning that a new Democrat could join the Senate within the next few weeks.