Labor leader sees Senate passing pro-union bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. labor leader said on Tuesday he expected the Senate to join the House of Representatives in passing legislation to make unionizing easier, despite an expected Republican effort to block a vote.

The House last week passed the bill to require employers to recognize a union once a majority of workers have signed up for one, a process known as card check, but it faces a bigger hurdle in the Senate where rules permit extended debate.

“We think that in the end we are going to be very successful in the United States Senate,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told a news conference in Las Vegas where the 54-union federation’s executive council is meeting.

Senate rules allow senators to block bills by extending debate with a filibuster, unless at least 60 of the chamber’s 100 senators vote to end debate. Labor leaders said they expected Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to mount such an effort.

“We recognize that the Senate will be an uphill fight in terms of passage of this legislation,” Sweeney said. “But we also recognize that achieving 60 votes to overcome this Republican filibuster is very possible.”

A spokeswoman for McConnell declined to say whether the senator would resort to a filibuster once the bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, was introduced in the Senate.

She cited McConnell’s statement last week opposing the bill as the House was about to pass it and vowing that “it will meet a different fate when it gets to the Senate.”

The bill, which would also impose civil penalties on employers who violate the law and virtually assure that newly organized workers get a first contract, is expected to be introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.

A Kennedy spokeswoman declined to predict when the bill would be introduced, saying the senator was still lining up co-sponsors, which so far did not include any Republicans.

To get 60 votes, supporters would have to line up all 49 Democrats, the two independents who are aligned with the Democrats, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who co-sponsored the bill last year, and eight more Republicans.

“We have a majority committed to it now in the United States Senate and we expect to get the votes that it will take to end a proposed filibuster by Senator McConnell,” AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stuart Acuff said at the news conference.

The bill’s 241-185 margin in the House on March 1 was nearly 50 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a promised presidential veto.

Union leaders say the bill is needed to fix a flawed system in which employers often illegally fire union supporters or threaten to close up shop in the months leading to government-supervised elections, according to studies.

Opponents, including business groups and several Republicans, have stressed the importance of the secret ballot process over the less private card-check system.

The United States is one of the few industrialized nations where workers can be required to vote to get a union.