Seeking to impose dramatic changes in how employers are unionized and who writes an employer’s first contract with a union, Democrats in the House and Senate yesterday re-introduced the Employee Free Choice Act (“EFCA”). The bill (H.R. 1409, S. 560) is identical to legislation that passed the House in 2007 as H.R. 800.

EFCA would make three radical changes to the National Labor Relations Act:

  • First, the bill would permit unions to obtain certification through a mandatory card check reviewed by Regional Offices of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”), rather than through a secret ballot election held and closely monitored by the Board. Predictably, the proposed legislation would not allow employees seeking decertification of a union to use such card check procedures; employees who wished to oust a union would instead be required to vote in an election.
  • Second, EFCA would allow an arbitration panel to write the first labor contract between an employer and a union where the parties themselves cannot do so. In particular, if the parties had not reached agreement on their own within 90 days, either side could ask the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to mediate the contract and, if no contract was in effect 30 days later, an arbitration panel would step in and write the contract for the parties. Any such contract would remain in effect for two years.
  • Third, the bill would change the procedures and penalties for alleged violations arising out of union organizing campaigns. NLRB Regional Directors, acting at their own discretion, would be allowed to seek injunctive relief against employers for such alleged violations. The Board would be required to assess both back pay and double liquidated damages on employers who discharge employees during an organizing campaign. The Board would also have authority to assess a civil penalty of up to $20,000 per violation of Section 8(a)(1) or (3) of the Act that substantially interferes with the union organizational process during the period of organizing and, after certification or recognition of a union, until a first contract is signed.

Like its predecessor, EFCA requires that the Board certify a union once it finds that most of an employer’s employees in a unit appropriate for collective bargaining have signed valid authorization cards designating a particular union as their representative. In other words, if a union submitted cards to the Board signed by 50 percent plus one of the employees in an appropriate bargaining unit, the Board would be required to certify the union as the representative of all employees in that unit without holding any secret ballot election. The proposed legislation, like the prior bill, is silent on what sort of authorization cards would be valid, and directs the Board to develop language for such cards and procedures for determining their validity without setting any deadline for the Board to do so. The current House version of EFCA also does not indicate how traditional representation issues involving the scope and composition of bargaining units will be determined. Under current NLRB procedures, these issues are determined by means of a representation case hearing that results in a written decision by a Regional Director, which is subject to review by the NLRB.

The bill is also silent on several critical issues as to how the binding interest arbitration would work, including how the arbitration board would be selected, whether the arbitrators would need to know anything about the employer’s business, and whether they would need to take into account the parties’ earlier contract proposals in coming up with the final agreement to be imposed on the parties.

The House bill was introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-Cal.) with 222 co-sponsors. With Democrats in solid control of the House, there is little question that the bill could pass there as is.   The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) with just 40 co-sponsors, meaning that even though President Obama strongly supports EFCA, 18 Democratic Senators are unwilling to attach their names to the legislation. Although EFCA supporters could probably find 51 votes in the Senate, the business community’s strong and uniform opposition makes it all but certain that Republicans will seek to filibuster the bill, requiring 60 votes to end debate. Organized labor and the business community are thus expected to focus almost all of their money and attention on the swing votes of about four or five moderate Democratic Senators and Sen. Specter (R-Pa.), seeking to secure 60 votes.