BRADENTON — Workers and employers are divided over a pro-union bill introduced in Washington this week.
The Employee Free Choice Act is stirring up unionization issues because it would allow unions to form by majority sign-up without requiring a confidential election among workers.
Union leaders in the Tampa Bay area say the new legislation is overdue, allowing workers to bargain for better wages and benefits. Business leaders say it is risky to eliminate secret balloting.
“The point is this is a political issue but there’s a legitimate issue of ‘what does the economy need’ at stake,” said Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.
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Currently, workers can form a union by majority sign-up or through a National Labor Relations Board election. However, employers can veto majority sign-up organizing campaigns and require workers to form by the National Labor Relations Board election.
Mishel said unions are important for the economy to keep wage growth competitive with productivity growth.
“Since 2002, we’ve had 11 to 13 percent productivity growth but no movement in hourly wages,” Mishel said. “Unions have a very positive effect on the economy because it helps expand the economic benefits to a wide array of people.”
The Employee Free Choice Act aims to give workers the choice because of concern that the election process favors employers and majority sign-up protects workers from intimidation and coercion when forming a union.
“The way the system is right now it’s almost impossible to win a union organization campaign,” said Bobby McCoy, business agent for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Local 140, which represents union carpenters from Sarasota County to Hernando County.
McCoy said he’s seen union campaigns receive support during a majority sign-up process, only for that support to decline when workers are sent to a National Labor Relations Board election.
“I’ve been through this over and over again,” McCoy said. “Employers start hiring union busters, they have a captive audience every day, and they intimidate them. And I don’t blame (workers) for backing out when they start threatening that you’re going to lose your job for voting for the union.”
Lawmakers are expected to vote on the Employee Free Choice Act by summer and some politicians and business organizations are opposed to it.
“Secret ballots protect workers from intimidation, coercion, and retribution based on how they vote,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan. “This legislation is so undemocratic that even former Democratic presidential candidates strongly opposes it, saying ‘workers could lose the freedom to express their will in private, the right to make a decision without anyone peering over their shoulder, free from fear of reprisal.’ ”
The Manatee County Chamber of Commerce, too, opposes the Employee Free Choice Act for similar reasons.
“We, just like the U.S. Chamber and Florida Chamber, think this is a misnamed bill,” said Neil Spirtas, vice president of public affairs for the Manatee Chamber. “It is coercive.”
The Employee Free Choice Act also would put tougher penalties on employers that illegally fire or discriminate against workers that participate in or form a union.
The legislation would require arbitration if employers and workers don’t come to an agreement on a contract within 120 days of forming a union.
Ken Woods, president of Teamsters Joint Council 75, said that would benefit workers so that they could more quickly begin bargaining agreements for wages and work conditions.
Teamsters Joint Council 75 is based in Tampa and oversees Teamsters Local 173, which represents employees at Tropicana in Bradenton and Fort Pierce.
“The employer has a tendency to drag their feet,” Wood said. “This would force them to come to some type of contract with workers.”