WASHINGTON A bill to allow workers to form unions by signing up, instead of voting, advanced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday as the Bush administration threatened to veto it.
The Democratic-controlled House Education and Labor Committee voted along party lines, 26-19, to approve the bill, which would require employers to recognize unions after a majority of workers have signed pro-union cards or a petition.
Vice President Dick Cheney declared the administration's opposition to the measure earlier on Wednesday, saying secret ballots are needed to prevent possible worker intimidation.
"Our administration rejects any attempt to short-circuit the rights of workers," Cheney told the business-friendly National Association of Manufacturers. "We will defend their right to vote yes or no by secret ballot, and their right to fair bargaining."
He said President George W. Bush "will veto the bill" if it is sent to him.
To form a union under current law, a majority of workers must vote in favor of one in a government-supervised election. Sign-ups are permitted, but an employer can reject it and force a ballot, which often takes several weeks but can take months.
"Let the employees decide if they want an election or if a majority wants sign-up with no veto by the boss," committee Chairman George Miller, a California Democrat, said as the panel began drafting the legislation.
Backers of the bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, argue that the election process is inherently unfair because union organizers can be denied access to the workplace, while bosses can require workers to attend anti-union meetings.
They also cite studies showing that employers often fire workers illegally with little, if any, penalty in the months leading up to elections. The bill's opponents counter with charges of worker intimidation in organizing campaigns, which they say the bill would make worse.
The bill also would for the first time make labor law violators subject to civil penalties and require that unions and companies unable to reach agreement on a first contract submit to binding arbitration.
The bill is expected to reach the House floor next month where approval is likely, since more than half of the chamber's 435 members, including a handful of minority Republicans, have co-sponsored it. A similar measure is expected to be introduced in the Democratic-controlled Senate soon, but it's fate there is less certain.
A similar bill died in the last Congress.