Like two prizefighters who talk smack about their opponent before climbing into the ring, both labor and management are sending messages that they taste victory on the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act. It's not clear who will lie flat on the mat when the fight is over.

“We expect this legislation to pass this year — and we expect it to pass as it's written now,” says Stewart Acuff, assistant to the president at the AFL-CIO, a national federation of unions in Washington, D.C.

“We've made it clear we're not willing to compromise in any way on this legislation,” says Marlene Colucci, executive vice president for public policy at the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade group in Washington, D.C. “The legislation is very black and white.”

Higher hotel costs?

The Employee Free Choice Act, which opponents call “card check,” would leave the decision to hold a secret-ballot election on unionization up to the union if a majority of employees have signed union cards and there's no evidence of employee coercion. Lodging industry advocates say it would result in fewer secret-ballot elections and deliver a potential knockout punch to an industry already reeling from a troubled economy.

“There's a 100% likelihood that more lodging properties will be unionized, and there's no reason for employees to organize if the union can't promise higher wages,” says Colucci. “That will result in higher costs to hotel owners.”

Hotel industry executives agree. In a 2009 survey conducted by the law firm DLA Piper, 80% of 122 hotel executives polled indicated that the legislation would have a negative or significantly negative effect on the hospitality industry.

In March 2008, the act was passed largely by a party-line vote of 241-185 in the U.S. House of Representatives. In June, however, Republicans filibustered the Senate version. Both sides expect the legislation to be reintroduced in 2009, but disagree on when that might happen.

Acuff says unions are lining up support among new members of Congress, who will introduce the bill soon. But Colucci considers the fact that the legislation hasn't been reintroduced yet as a positive sign for hotel owners. “Democrats had said this legislation was going to be the first thing out of the box after the election,” she says. “We've noticed it wasn't.”

Colucci is interpreting recent comments from President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D. Nev.) — in which both said the economy is the top priority now — as a positive sign for the anti-card check coalition. “That's a long way away from where they where before the election,” says Colucci. “We're seeing a lot of foot-dragging.”

Unions to push hard

Acuff is buoyed by Obama's Jan. 30 reversal of three anti-union executive orders and his statements calling the labor movement part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Acuff also is pleased with Obama's pick of Wilma Liebman to chair the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees labor-management disputes, and says Liebman has voted consistently on behalf of workers.

“Jan. 30 has to be read in a number of ways,” according to Acuff. “One, this administration is a friend of workers and organized labor. Two, this administration will clean up the mistakes of the Bush administration with regard to workers' issues. And three, we'll have a close working relationship.”

But even if Colucci is right that legislators have lost their zeal for the legislation, unions won't stand down. “We're not waiting for Obama to deliver this legislation to us,” says Acuff. “We're moving forward very assertively in conjunction with the House and Senate leadership and in consultation with the administration. We expect and have their support, but this measure will have its own timetable.”

The outcome of this clash of titans will be up to the Senate. Acuff and Colucci expect the legislation to again pass the House easily. However, Senate supporters will need 60 votes to end a promised Republican filibuster. That means moderates on both side of the aisle are now hot lobbying targets by both sides.

Whatever the outcome, hotel owners face the potential for increased unionization. Statistics provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor show that in 2008 union membership grew by 428,000, the biggest annual gain since 1983 and the second consecutive year of growth. Currently, 12.4% of the nation's work force is unionized, up from 12.1% in 2007.


We'd like to hear from you. Do you think the proposed Employee Free Choice Act should ultimately become law? Send your e-mails to matt.valley@penton.com.

G.M. Filisko is a reporter and attorney based in Chicago who writes regularly on legal and real estate issues. She can be contacted at gabifil@rcn.com.