January 18, 2006

Sweeney sees passage of union organizing bill

By Peter Szekely

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
predicted on Wednesday that the divided American labor movement
will get Congress to pass a bill in the next three years that
makes it easier for workers to form unions.

In a wide-ranging address, Sweeney cited the labor-backed
Employee Free Choice Act as one of his antidotes to the
"senseless slaughter of the good American job" that he said
threatens the stability of the U.S. economy.

"It will stop American employers from taking advantage of
our laughable labor laws to destroy the unions that keep our
middle class healthy and growing," he said of the bill in a
speech at the National Press Club.

"And we will pass it while (President) George Bush is in
office," he added. Bush has three years remaining in his second

The bill, one of labor's top legislative goals, has 208
co-sponsors in the 435-member House of Representatives and 42
co-sponsors in the 100-member Senate. It would allow workers to
form unions at their workplaces simply by collecting a majority
of their signatures.

Under current labor law, unless an employer voluntarily
recognizes a union, workers who have demonstrated their desire
for a union with their signatures still must vote in a
government-overseen secret-ballot election.

Union leaders claim that in the weeks leading to elections,
employers often commit labor law violations, like threatening
to close up shop or firing lead organizers, that terrorize
workers into voting against unionization.

One union official said he expects more lawmakers,
including some Republicans, to sign on to the list of the
bill's co-sponsors. But even if majorities in each house
co-sponsor the bill, he said he does not expect congressional
Republican leaders to allow it to come to a vote.

So far, 10 Republicans in the House and one in the Senate
have signed on.

Sweeney predicted that the upcoming November elections
would produce "significant" changes in the make-up of the
Republican-led House and Senate.


Unions were unable to stop Bush's re-election in 2004,
despite a get-out-the-vote effort that saw an overwhelming
turnout of union members and their families, more than
two-thirds of whom voted for Democratic Sen. John Kerry,
according to polling data.

The labor movement was fractured last summer when several
union leaders left the AFL-CIO, complaining among other things
that there had been too much emphasis on political activity and
not enough on organizing new members. Their Change to Win
Federation has seven unions and 5.4 million members, while the
AFL-CIO has 52 unions with 9 million members.

Despite the split, Sweeney said the AFL-CIO has worked with
the Change to Win Federation in a number of areas, including
the election in November of Democratic governors in New Jersey
and Virginia.

"We will continue to do what we can to reunite the labor
movement," Sweeney said in response to a question. "I
personally have put a lot of time and a lot of effort into this
and I'm committed to trying to reunify."

First elected in 1995 on a pledge to reinvigorate the labor
movement, Sweeney's tenure at the helm of the AFL-CIO saw U.S.
union membership fall to 12.5 percent of workers in 2004 from
15.5 percent and from about one-third of workers in the 1950s.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics is scheduled to report union
membership for last year on Friday.