Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have endorsed proposals that would waive an employer’s right to insist on a secret workplace ballot on union representation. Instead, a union would only have to secure the signatures of a majority of workers in the proposed bargaining unit.
If the Democratic candidate wins the presidency in November the issue will become a key battleground for business under the new administration.
Business groups including the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Retail Federation and the US Chamber of Commerce have formed a lobbying coalition to oppose what they insist is a threat to the principle of the secret ballot.
The Democratic-backed Employee Free Choice Act, dubbed the “card count bill” by employers, last year passed in the House of Representatives but failed to secure the backing needed in the Senate in a procedural vote that divided along party political lines.
Lee Scott, the chief executive officer of Wal-Mart, the strongly anti-union retailer that is one of the largest private employers in the US, argued that the bill would lead to employees being “subjected to the individual pressure of people calling on you and knowing where you stand”.
“I think it’s just unfortunate that it has become something that has been driven by a small group of people that have just extraordinary political influence,” he told the Financial Times.
Senior private equity figures have privately warned of the potential impact on US business costs.
Rob Green, a lobbyist for the National Retail Federation, said stopping the proposed changes was the group’s top legislative priority. “We see the bill as unnecessary and a big threat to the retail industry,” he said.
“We’re looking ahead to 2009. What we’re trying to do this year is to educate legislators and the public at large about the details. We think the more the public learns, the less they like it.”
Only about 7 per cent of the US private sector workforce is unionised, down from 16 per cent in the early 1980s, according to US government statistics.
Bruce Raynor, head of the Unite Here union, said the current system was unworkable and that his union no longer tried to organise if an employer insisted on opposing union activity.
He said that the proposed legislation would also strengthen the penalties on employers for dismissing union sympathisers. “Currently it almost behoves an employer to dismiss union supporters and break the law, because the penalties are so slight,” he said.