Labor bill puts Specter on the spot

March 16, 2009|By Josh Drobnyk | Josh Drobnyk,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -Sen. Arlen Specter has been told by several of his most faithful GOP backers in Pennsylvania that they'll abandon their support if he votes for a union-rights bill working its way through Congress, an ultimatum that carries significance both for the measure and for Specter's re-election run next year.

The threat has come in unusually blunt terms at a time when some Republicans in the state are already furious at the five-term senator for backing the economic stimulus package. It illustrates the shaky ground Specter finds himself on as he navigates a centrist role in the Senate ahead of a GOP primary in spring 2010.

The Employee Free Choice Act has mobilized business and labor activists into a full-fledged battle on Capitol Hill over whether to make it easier for workers to unionize. The measure would require companies to recognize unions if a majority of employees sign cards to join, effectively eliminating a rule that allows employers to request a secret ballot election.

Also, it would allow either side to request binding arbitration if they can't come to terms on a contract within 120 days after a union is formed, a provision that labor leaders highlight as a key change in the law because it is now common for lengthy delays - sometimes several years - during negotiation.

President Barack Obama has told labor leaders the bill will pass. But with some Senate Democrats still on the fence, both sides are anticipating changes to the legislation before it comes up for a vote.

Either way, Specter's position could prove to be critical to its success or failure. He is the only Republican who voted to move the bill forward two years ago - he says he is undecided this year - and business and labor leaders have zeroed in on him as they lobby on the Hill.

Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey said he's hearing about Specter throughout the Pittsburgh area.

"If he votes for the [bill], he is going to have a real, real difficult time with the base of the party," Roddey said.

Roddey said he has spent the past several weeks meeting with Republican committees in Allegheny, where four out of five people he has spoken with have said they'll vote for someone else in the primary if he supports the measure.

"I can't say it is never mentioned," Specter said of the bill in an interview. "It has never been a key point. I think that is because people realize it would be counterproductive. My arm is not twistable."

The flip side is Specter's standing among labor activists. He was endorsed by the AFL-CIO during his re-election run in 2004. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George predicted Specter's vote on the Employee Free Choice Act would decide whether he gains a repeat endorsement in 2010.

"This is a priority for working-class people in this country," George said.

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