WASHINGTON -- When Barack Obama was seeking AFL-CIO support in the primaries, he promised to sign a bill that would effectively deprive workers of a private-ballot vote in unionization drives.
The bill, which is No. 1 on organized labor's wish list, is seen by union bosses as the only way to increase depleted membership rolls because it would be easier to unionize workplaces without the bother of the private ballot to protect workers in a free and democratic election.
Obama doesn't talk about this issue much before general audiences, but it his No. 1 promise when he speaks to unions -- pledging that the so-called Employee Free Choice Act will become law in 2009 if he wins the presidency in November. "We're ready to play offense for organized labor. It's time we had a president who didn't choke saying the word 'union.' A president who strengthens our unions by letting them do what they do best: organize our workers," the freshman senator told the AFL-CIO in Philadelphia on April 2.
"I will make it the law of the land when I'm president of the United States," he told the labor federation.
The labor-law reform is known as the "card-check bill" because it would allow employees to form a union simply by publicly collecting a majority of cards signed by workers supporting unionization of their employer's business. Union leaders would, of course, know how each worker voted, opening them up to pressure and intimidation.
Under current law, once a majority of workers submit cards requesting union certification, an election is held where workers vote by secret ballot on whether to ratify unionization. The bill, pushed by labor and supported by Obama, would effectively abandon that procedure in most cases.
John McCain opposes the bill, saying it would deny a democratic right of workers to decide by secret ballot whether they and their co-workers will come under union representation.
The Arizona Republican thinks the card-check bill is nothing more than "a poorly disguised attempt by the labor unions to swell their ranks at the expense of workers' rights and employers."
While both candidates battle for support over critical issues such as the economy and Iraq, the AFL-CIO has made card check its chief obsession. They announced late last month that they were launching "a ramped-up campaign" to make Obama's pledge a reality, beginning with a massive mailing to more than 600,000 union households in the battleground states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
That will be followed by a "massive campaign" among 13 million union voters in August to promote Obama and highlight his support for the bill. Unions will spend $300 million in the elections -- much of it to promote the card-check bill.