CBNNews.com - SMITHFIELD, Va. -- The Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier for unions to organize in the workplace. But critics of this new bill say passing it would cost the country thousands of jobs and one basic freedom -- the right to a secret ballot.
It is a debate that has people talking in every corner of the country.
Click the player to watch the report from CBN News Reporter Efrem Graham followed by Gordon Robertson's comments on the doing away with the secret ballot.
Smithfield, Va., is a town that totals ten square miles and is home to a little more than 6,000 people. But this tiny town has big bragging rights. It is home to Smithfield Foods, the world's largest ham biscuit and the largest pork processor.
"I like to tell people we are in a sell or smell it business, " joked Larry Pope, the company's president. "If we don't get it through distribution pretty quickly, we have a problem".
But with production plants in North America, Poland, and Romania, Pope is serious about his company's slogan, which is producing "Good food, responsibly."
"I say the three things I never compromise on, food safety, environmental safety, and worker safety," Pope said.
That fight to be safe and competitive is not always fought inside a Smithfield facility. It is often in Washington, D.C., where political decisions can change business operations at his company and others.
March 10, 2009
Proclaiming it a defining moment in American history, Sen. Tom Harkin D-Iowa uncorked a battle that's been bubbling between union bosses and business leaders since it failed in the U.S. Senate in 2007.
"Today, Congressman Miller and I, along with co-sponsors, are introducing the Employee Free Choice Act," Harkin announced at a recent news conference.
He was joined by fellow Democrat, California Rep. George Miller.
"As President Obama and Vice President Biden have said, the labor movement is not part of the problem, they are big part of the solution," Miller said. "And that is what we believe will happen with the Employee Free Choice Act."
The measure is also called Card Check, because it allows an employee to unionize his workplace by getting others to check "yes" on cards and sign them. If 51 percent vote yes, a union leader steps in to negotiate a contract with the employer. The biggest sticking point in this legislation is no secret ballot is required to unionize.
The bill's sponsors maintain a secret ballot is still possible. But here's exactly how it reads, "If the board finds that a majority of the employees in a unit, has signed valid authorizations, the board shall not direct an election, but certify the labor organization."
They then have 120 days to reach a contract before an arbitrator steps in to set guidelines.
"I guess I am most surprised that most Americans don't even know what it is," Pope said.
Pope is very familiar with the bill, and thinks it is an un-American burden for the 57,000 Smithfield employees who work to put food on millions of dinner tables.
"We are not anti-union," he explained. "I am not. I am very much pro-employee. And in fact, the majority of our employees are unionized, both in the United States and outside the United States."
Pope wants to see the secret ballot protected.
Barabra Comstock of the Workforce Fairness Institute, opposes EFCA and its union support.
"We call this the Employee Forced Choice Act, because it is not about free choice at all," she said. "They want to change the rules so it is all tipped to them winning, and them being able to force a union on a work place, whether or not the workers want it."
Sen. Harkin had argued opposition to the bill is not new.
"Now we already hear some folks in the business community howling about this being the end of civilization, to which I say, there they go again," he said.
Tennessee's Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is one of four senators who blasted the bill before his colleagues even introduced it.
"The change in balance between labor and management would be distorted forever," Sen. Corker said. "And I am totally opposed to it. This is simply something that union leadership is trying to do to feather their own nest."
Corker is joined by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who introduced legislation to protect the secret ballot a little more than a week before Harkin and Miller introduced EFCA.
"Checking a card means that four or five people can be standing around you, telling you how you need to vote," Demint said. "And we've seen this in some places where card check is already in place in our country."
The Union Side
Mary Kay Henry is the vice President of Service Employees International Union , the largest and fastest growing union in North America.
"We think it levels the playing field between workers and management," she said. "The veteran union organizer is quick to defend the bill. Card Check is not a ticket to bully workers into becoming new members."
"It's people making decisions to improve their own lives," Henry continued. "It just doesn't work where you go beat people up over the head and say this is a really good idea whether you think so, or not. It's not a way to be successful. We would have never built this union to two million if we had tried to organize that way."
The union did organize, campaign, and contribute to President Obama's run for the White House. But Henry dismisses claims the legislation is political pay-back or a chance to increase union revenue.
"When I hear the critique I take deep offense to it, because it would be like saying a pastor is only motivated by how many people sit in their pews," she responded.
Behind the scenes, union leaders are turning up the pressure on those who have the power to vote.
In a front page Washington Times' story, Pennsylvania's AFL-CIO president pledged union support for Sen. Arlen Spector, R-Penn., if he supports the Card Check legislation.
The bill is controversial and supporters hope to get 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster, which could potentially kill the measure. Though the bill was introduced in both the House and Senate on the same day, the Senate is likely to act first.
But that action will not happen until after the Easter recess. Still, both sides have predicted wins.
"I believe that on the day the votes is taken and I believe that is sooner rather than later, the votes will in fact be there," Rep. Miller said.
"I am actually beginning to believe, and I am very hopeful that there is no chance this bill is going to pass," said Sen. Corker , who is also counting the cost of the bill passing.
One economic study shows it could mean the loss of at least 600,000 jobs in 2010 alone.