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  • Vice President Joe Biden addresses the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) at their 2009 Legislative Conference in Washignton, Tuesday, May 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 5:32 pm

Biden says unions are way to rebuild middle class

By SAM HANANELAssociated Press Writer

Vice President Joe Biden, making a renewed pitch for a major change in labor law, told union leaders Tuesday that the best way to rebuild the middle class is to help labor unions grow.

Biden said it's time to "level the playing field" for unions by passing a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize.

"You've got to climb up a hill with so many roadblocks on the way to organize that it's just out of whack," Biden told a conference of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has about 1.6 million members.

"If a union is what you want, then a union is what you should get," Biden said.

The Employee Free Choice Act - also known as "card check" - is organized labor's top priority this year, but business groups are adamantly opposed. It would allow a majority of workplace employees to sign cards to join a union instead of holding secret ballot elections.

Senate lawmakers are working on a compromise version of the measure that will satisfy some moderate Democrats that have concerns about the bill. Democratic leaders need to garner 60 votes in the Senate to overcome an expected GOP attempt to filibuster.

Biden pointed out the difference between public sector employees, where 37 percent belong to unions, compared to the private sector, where just 7.5 percent of workers carry union cards. He said federal, state and municipal employees face fewer barriers to organization, while managers in the private sector use "every trick in the book" to undermine unions.

Biden said he and President Barack Obama would not consider their economic recovery efforts a success unless growth creates "good, sustainable, livable jobs in the process." A key element, he said, is rebuilding the American labor movement, which has steadily declined since the 1950s.

"We will not consider it a success unless the middle class is growing, taking a piece of that productivity," Biden said.

Biden chairs Obama's middle class task force, which evaluate policies and recommend ways to boost middle-class families.

Business groups that oppose the organizing bill say workers would be subject to union intimidation without secret ballot elections. They are also concerned about a provision that would let government arbitrators set a contract if workers and management cannot agree on a first collective bargaining agreement within 120 days.

Keith Smith, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, called the bill "a power grab by union bosses seeking to inflate union membership by skewing the careful balance of our labor law system that has worked well for more than half a century."

Katie Packer, head of the pro-business Workforce Fairness Institute, noted that the bill has been losing ground with Senate Democrats. Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have said they won't support the bill without significant changes, though both have been involved in compromise talks.

"With unemployment increasing and more Americans looking for work, we agree with President Obama that the bigger problem is there aren't any jobs to unionize," Packer said.
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