Labor chief pledges White House support for reform

WASHINGTON Mon Sep 14, 2009 12:37pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on Monday assured America's biggest labor federation that the Obama administration would fight for legislation in Congress to make it easier for unions to organize workers.

Solis also called on unions to help President Barack Obama secure healthcare reform in Congress but made no reference to labor's main priority -- a government-run insurance program -- which has divided Democrats and outraged Republicans.

"I will work with the White House so that together we make the strongest case possible for the Employee Free Choice Act," she told the AFL-CIO's quadrennial convention in Pittsburgh.

"My friends, we will join you in the fight," she added.

The AFL-CIO, which consists of 56 unions with 11 million members, broadcast her speech live via the Internet.

Her remarks coincide with union concerns that Obama has put the labor reform bill on a back burner while he pursues healthcare and climate change reform in Congress.

The measure would provide organized labor with a vital tool for rebuilding its ranks, which have fallen to 7.5 percent of private sector jobs from more than 30 percent in the 1950s.

It would let workers organize unions by getting just over half of the employees at a job site to sign union cards.

Union officials say that would help prevent intimidation tactics by employers. But the bill faces vehement opposition in Congress from critics who say it robs workers of the right to a secret ballot and unfairly penalizes companies.

Solis also assured the AFL-CIO that Obama was determined to see healthcare reform meet three goals: stability for those with insurance, access to coverage for those without and lower costs for workers, employers and governments.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, expected to become federation president this week, has voiced staunch support for a public option wants lawmakers to do the same.

But analysts believe Obama has backed away from the public option, which would create a government-run insurance plan, in order to strike a deal with lawmakers who say it could bring about a government takeover of the insurance industry.

The labor secretary made no mention of the option on Monday and pointed instead to Obama's general objectives, calling them "three overriding goals that we need to remember."

Obama is expected to address the AFL-CIO on Tuesday.

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