Salena Zito

Is it pay-back time or about time? When it comes to “card-check,” slang for the Employee Free-Choice Act – one of the first pieces of legislation likely to go before Congress when it reconvenes in January – it depends on who you ask.

Today, if a union organizer goes into a workplace and gets 30 percent of the employees to sign a “union interest” card, an election is ordered by the National Labor Relations Board. A secret-ballot vote is held six weeks later, giving both union and employer time to lobby the workers.

Under card-check, not so much: If a majority of employees sign a union card, then the union becomes the bargaining unit. No more six-week campaigns, no more elections. It’s a done deal; you’re essentially a union shop.

This will not be the first vote on this bill; it passed the House last session, 241-185, but died in a Senate filibuster.

This time, with a healthy majority of Democrats in the House and a near super-majority of them in the Senate, passage is likely to go from standing on a precipice to heading over the cliff.

According to Nick Shapiro, a spokesperson for the next administration, “President-elect Obama supports the Employee Free-Choice Act and is committed to its passage.”

“Card-check gives a better opportunity for workers to have an easier way to form a union at their workplace,” explains Bill George, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

He pushes back at critics who say it goes against the fundamental American right to a secret ballot: “Bottom line is that there is too much power in the hands of employers, and middle-class workers are not getting their fair share of the profits.”

“If you want to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a union, you should be able to do that in the privacy of the voting booth,” counters James Sherk, a Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

“Promoting unionism is not a wise idea in the middle of a recession,” Sherk adds. The real issue in his mind is not whether unions are good or bad. “The issue is, are these specific conditions” – not using secret ballots – “good or bad? I would argue (that) no matter the economic circumstances, workers have the right to a private vote.

“They have the right to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on unionism without the union officials or their co-workers being aware of how they voted.”

You can make an argument that each side sees a benefit to a different process, says Purdue University professor Bert Rockman.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.