Sunday, November 16, 2008

Unions ready to recruit Hispanic workers if Obama changes organizing rules

Phoenix Business Journal – by Mike Sunnucks

Labor unions are poised to go after Hispanic workers in states like Arizona and sectors such as services and health care if new union rules are put in place by the Barack Obama administration and Democratic Congress next year.

Unions and pro-union Democrats want Congress and Obama to pass card-check legislation. The plan would allow unions to organize in workplaces if they get a majority of workers to sign cards supporting unionization. It would scrap 73-year-old unionization laws that require secret ballots for workers to decide whether they want their work forces represented by a trade union.

Card-check legislation is a top goal of unions such as the Service Employees International Union and AFL-CIO, who were top Obama backers.

Such plans have been blocked by President Bush, and the Republicans have enough votes to impede card-check in the U.S. Senate.In January, Obama takes the Oval Office and Democrats have more votes in the U.S. Senate.

Nate Niemuth, a partner and employment law expert with Phoenix law firm Ryley Carlock & Applewhite PA, said unions would like to sign up more Hispanic workers and unionize health care and service industries that are somewhat new to labor organizations.

“If passed, it will have a very dramatic impact,” said Niemuth.

Union members account for 12 percent of the U.S. work force, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The lowest level of unionization is among Hispanics, who have only 9.8 percent of Latino workers in unions and only 9.6 percent of Hispanic women.

Unionized workers also tend to be Democrats, and the card-check measure could help the party align more with Latinos. Hispanics largely supported Obama in this month’s election over U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., helping the Illinois lawmaker carry states such as New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. The focus on the economy and Republican tendencies to take hard-right stances on immigration hurt McCain with Latino voters this cycle after George W. Bush made inroads with Hispanics in 2004.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry, worry about the card-check bill becoming law.

Unions and advocacy groups called American Rights at Work are lobbying Congress to move on the card-check legislation quickly next year. The American Rights group is a coalition that includes the AFL-CIO, National Council of La Raza, NAACP and former senator John Edwards.

Its chair is former Michigan congressman David Bonior. Bonior is said to be on Obama’s short-list along with pro-labor former Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt for U.S. Labor Secretary.

Jon Pettibone, partner with the law firm Quarles & Brady LLP, said card-check critics worry that union organizers will pressure rank-and-file workers to sign cards. He also said the card-check bill would impose tougher penalties on businesses caught committing unfair labor practices.

Card-check advocates counter that businesses also pressured workers not to unionize in the run-up to secret ballot elections.The issue could create some political quandaries for Obama and Democratic lawmakers in states like Arizona.

“A key test issue for President Obama and an emboldened Democratic Congress is whether to risk an early party split over union-backed check-card legislation. Democrats in Arizona’s congressional delegation and many in ‘red’ districts across the nation may not want to be forced to choose between their constituents’ interests and those of big labor,” said Farrell Quinlan, president of In the Arena Public Affairs, a Phoenix-based lobbying and consulting firm.

U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell, Ann Kirkpatrick and Gabrielle Giffords, are Democrats headed into their first or second terms in districts previously held by Republicans. The trio was backed by labor unions in the 2008 campaign, though Mitchell has taken some pro-business stances such as opposing increased capital gains and dividends taxes.

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