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Economy intensifies Employee Free Choice Act debate

North Carolina has the lowest union rate in the nation, with just 3.5 percent of workers in a union. Now a measure in Congress called the Employee Free Choice Act could dramatically change the labor balance in North Carolina. That has led interest groups on both sides of the labor debate to ramp-up their rhetoric. When workers of a company want to organize into a union they need to collect signatures from at least thirty percent of employees. Their employer can then decide to recognize the union or request a secret ballot election. Usually employers go with the secret ballot because it gives them a few months to try and convince workers that unionizing is a bad idea.

The Employee Free Choice Act - also known as the Card Check Bill - would take away the company's ability to demand a secret ballot and force it to accept the union as long as a majority of employees sign cards of support. "This is not fair to the employees that really don't want to do it," says Otis Crowder, the CEO of Crowder Construction in Charlotte. Like most of the business community, Crowder argues the secret ballot prevents workers from being pressured by unions.

"Think about, somebody can take a piece of paper, walk in there, send six people over to your house and say do you want to sign this or not?" says Crowder.

Instances of coercion are well-documented on both sides of the union battle. But the latest national data shows reports of abuse on the employer side outnumber reports of union abuse three-to-one.

"There's only one secret that the Chamber of Commerce and the CEOs want to protect and it's not whether a union worker writes yes or no on a union ballot," says North Carolina AFL-CIO spokesperson Marybe McMillan. "The only secret they are trying to protect is how the employee free choice act would really empower workers and give them a voice on the job."

Charlotte School of Law professor Meredith Jeffries says both sides do agree on one thing about the Card Check law. "It would make it easier for unions to organize," says Jeffries. "And that would have a big impact in this state because we have so few unions." Jeffries says North Carolina is virtually union-free, in part, because it's one of 22 so-called "right to work" states.

Workers here can't be compelled to join a union as a condition of their employment - even if a union already represents the majority of employees at a company. The Employee Free Choice Act doesn't change that. But Jeffries says there's another reason North Carolina has so few unions.

"Employers here have had a strong lobby and worked hard to not allow unions in," says Jeffries. "So that, if there's a pro of the legislation is that it does give unions more access to come in and talk to employees and have a legitimate chance maybe at getting employees interested."

Another controversial piece of the measure aims to prevent companies and unions from ending up in lengthy negotiation disputes that often lead to strikes. Jeffries says the company and union would have to submit to binding arbitration if they can't settle a contract negotiation within four months.

"And then you have a third party deciding what the fair terms are to go into the collective bargaining agreement," says Jeffries. "And I think that's a pretty radical departure from the way the agreements have been negotiated in the past."

Depending on the bias of the arbitrator, Jeffries says that provision could work in favor of either side. Unions seem willing to accept the risk, but the business community is recoiling. Carolinas Association of General Contractors President Steve Gennett says it would put a chill on construction.

"A lot of people are going to think twice before risking their financial future on starting up a small construction business," argues Gennett. "If Washington appointees are likely to call the shots, this will definitely be the case."

Opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act say a recession is no time to encourage more organized labor because it might deter businesses who have traditionally migrated to the North Carolina's union-free environment. President Obama and Democratic politicians say just the opposite.

"Union members are nearly three times more likely to have guaranteed pensions and earn 23 percent more than non-union workers," says Democrat and North Carolina State Representative Ty Harrell. "Giving working people the freedom to form unions is key to turning around the economy and rebuilding America's middle class."

In any case, it's clear that the seriousness of the current recession is casting this decades-old debate in a new light. *Correction: Previous version of this story referred to Meredith Jeffries as Queens University professor. She is employed by Charlotte School of Law.