A new House bill seeks to make the process easier for employees to unionize.
Small-business owners and advocacy groups are denouncing a federal bill aimed at easing the process of organizing unions in the workplace, claiming it denies employees the right to a secret ballot.
The Employee Free Choice Act, which the House approved by 241-185 on Thursday largely along party lines, enables employees to unionize using only a so-called "card-check" system, instead of a traditional secret ballot.
Under the card-check system, as proposed by the bill, a workers' union can be certified as soon as organizers collect signed union cards from a majority of employees.
Labor groups, who have long supported the move, say union cards -- and not secret ballots -- are the best defense against employers that attempt to threaten, harass, or coerce their employees out of joining a union under the current system.
They say the legislation is necessary to level the playing field between employers and employees when it comes to employee organizing, bargaining, negotiations.
"In virtually every organizing campaign, workers are forced into meetings to hear anti-union rhetoric from the very supervisors who control whether they can feed their children and pay their bills," John Sweeney, the President of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, said in a statement. "In essence, they are made to choose between having a union and having a paycheck."
Business groups that campaigned against the bill say it gives labor organizers too much control over workers, while denying them the right to vote.
"There are many examples where card-check elections have been challenged on the basis of coercion, misrepresentation, forgery, fraud, peer pressure and promised benefits," Steve Pfister, the vice president of government relations for the National Retail Federation, said in a statement.
Dan Danner, the executive vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the secret-ballot system protects owners and employees from intimidation and misinformation by labor organizers seeking to exclude them from discussions about their business.
"We find it disheartening that small businesses are being unfairly targeted by unions in a last-ditch effort to reverse the trends of their decreasing membership," Danner said in a statement.
Only about 12 percent of the U.S. workforce is currently unionized, compared to more than 20 percent in the early 1980s, according to the Labor Department.
President Bush has already said he will veto the bill on the grounds that it strips workers of the right to a supervised private ballot.
"It is a fundamental tenet of democracy that individuals are able to vote their conscience, privately, free from the threat of reprisal," the administration said in a statement on Wednesday. "Substituting the card-check mechanism for private ballots would turn back the clock 60 years and return us to a failed system."
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he will block the legislation in the Senate, where the Democrats have a slimmer majority.
"We will not allow the progress already made on behalf of U.S. workers to be undone," McConnell said in a statement.