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UPDATE 1-Republican opposes US labor bill, may doom measure

*Republican Specter opposes labor bill

*Labor, Democrats refuse to concede defeat

*May be a factor in Specter’s 2010 reelection bid

WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) - A Republican U.S. senator on Tuesday announced he would oppose a bill to make it easier for workers to unionize, a move that could help his party block the measure -- possibly by one vote.

Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the only Republican who backed a similar bill in 2007 and was seen as a key crossover vote this year, announced his reversal in a speech in the Democratic-led Senate.

“It’s a close call,” he said, but “I have made up my mind.”

The bill, known as “card check” legislation and backed by President Barack Obama, would let workers decide whether to unionize by signing a petition or by holding a secret-ballot election. Employers can now require a secret ballot.

Organized labor and business have lobbied Specter, who is preparing to run for re-election in 2010, on the Employee Free Choice Act which has been closely watched by companies including retail giant Wal-Mart WMT.N.

If Specter had backed the bill, he would have generated opposition from conservatives and business. But now that he opposes it, he faces a stiff blowback from labor.

“He’s going to have a hard time winning the general election without labor’s support,” said Vincent Panvini, a lobbyist with the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association.

While foes of the measure saw Specter’s action as dooming the bill, Panvini and Senate Democratic supporters refused to concede defeat.

“Perhaps another Republican will back it. It’s never over until it’s over,” Panvini said in a telephone interview.

COUNTING THE VOTES

The bill’s critics complain unions could bully workers into signing a petition and that a secret ballot is a tenet of democracy.

Backers of the legislation, however, argue companies have undermined elections with threats against workers, anti-union campaigns and lengthy delays.

Proponents had been counting on Specter to help muster the 60 votes that would be needed in the 100-member Senate to clear a promised Republican procedural roadblock and move to passage of the measure.

Specter had made it known in recent weeks he was reconsidering. Several Democrats have said the bill may have to be changed to gain their support.

Speaking in the Senate, Specter said on Tuesday the recession makes it “a particularly bad time” to enact the bill, noting employers warn it could cost jobs.

But Specter also noted there is a need to revamp the law to make sure union elections are fair and that both sides negotiate in good faith.

Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Health, Education and Labor Committee, said, “It’s disappointing that Senator Specter feels he cannot support the Employee Free Choice Act in its current form, but I welcome his recognition of the urgent need for labor law reform.”

“I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find the best way to move forward with this important legislation,” Kennedy said. (Editing by Vicki Allen)

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