WASHINGTON -- The nation's nurses have an idea for how to improve health care: Allow more of them to unionize.
But as they press Congress to approve a bill that would make it easier to organize, nurses and other unions have identified a big obstacle in California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
While President Barack Obama and a majority of Democratic senators are behind the Employee Free Choice Act, Feinstein is not. And after scoring a perfect 100 rating from the AFL-CIO last year, many union activists are scratching their heads, wondering why Feinstein has parted ways with them on their signature issue.
Without Feinstein's backing, bill supporters fear they may not be able to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate.
Although the state's senior senator has backed similar legislation in the past, she is sticking to her guns. She said she didn't cosponsor the bill this year because it wouldn't make sense to pass it during a recession.
"This is an extraordinarily difficult economy, and feelings are very strong on both sides of the issue," Feinstein said. "I would hope there is some way to find common ground that would be agreeable to both business and labor."
Unions accuse Feinstein of waffling. And they're not buying the now-is-not-the-time argument.
"How is that it's not time for workers but it was plenty of enough time to give billions of dollars in bailout money?" asked Deborah Burger, co-president of the California Nurses Association. "Wall Street gets billions, and what do we get, the ones who actually helped elect her? It seems like if we were bankers, we would have gotten the nod."
Proponents of the bill cite the economy as a reason to pass the legislation, which is also known as the "card check" bill.
"During this tough economy, it is important that we continue fostering growth in our region," said Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento, one of 227 House members -- including 32 from California -- who are co-sponsoring the bill. She said the bill "will bolster America's middle class" by empowering workers to make their own decisions regarding collective bargaining.
As originally proposed, the bill would allow workers to bypass the usual election process and allow them to become a bargaining unit if more than 50 percent signed cards showing their support for a union.
The legislation would also stiffen penalties against employers that illegally fire or discriminate against workers for union activity during an organizing drive. And it would allow employers and newly formed unions to refer bargaining issues to mediation and, if necessary, to binding arbitration if the parties could not agree on a first contract.
Proponents of the bill say it's needed because the election system favors employers. Under the current rules, employers can veto a decision by workers to organize through a majority sign-up and force them into an election. Proponents say the majority sign-up process would result in less pressure and coercion of workers.
Opponents of the bill, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say it would hurt business. And they say there's nothing more sacred than a secret ballot and that it should not be taken away from workers.
"I'm opposed to the elimination of the secret ballot and I'm also opposed to the notion that a government arbiter should be empowered to set wages and working conditions," said California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of Granite Bay, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee.
By removing the secret ballot, McClintock said, the legislation "eliminates one of the most fundamental principles of a democracy." He and many others expect Democrats to try to win more support for the bill by removing the election provisions but keeping the language involving binding arbitration.
But business lobbyists are balking at the suggestion. Randy Johnson, the U.S. chamber's senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, told a forum last month that there is no compromise in the works.
Feinstein's search for a middle ground has resulted in much lobbying from unions, including the California Labor Federation, the Service Employees International Union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Communication Workers.
To draw attention to the issue, union activists have been participating in vigils and picketing Feinstein's offices in California. And last month, the nurses left hundreds of red roses, accompanied with personal notes, on the doorstep of her tony San Francisco home.
The nurses want Feinstein to know that employers "are trying to silence us," Burger said.
Burger said the issue should be of concern to the general public, arguing that nurses are at the front line of patient care and are more likely to speak up and question a doctor's orders if they belong to a union and don't have to fear a backlash. She said too many non-union nurses are afraid to say anything, even if they question a medical approach.
Feinstein said she has received 40,542 calls, letter and e-mails on the subject, with 74 percent expressing support for the Employee Free Choice Act. She said she has been meeting privately with labor and business leaders, along with other senators, "about ways to move this issue forward."
Asked to respond to labor's disappointment with her, Feinstein said: "I speak often with my friends in the labor community. I know their view, and they know mine."
Supporters say the bill would improve wages and benefits for workers, which in turn would help the overall economy. They're particularly pleased to have an ally in the White House this year.
At a Labor Day picnic sponsored by the AFL-CIO in Cincinnati, Obama said he supports the legislation "to level the playing field so it's easier for employees who want a union to form a union."
"Nothing wrong with that," Obama said. "Because when labor is strong, America is strong. When we all stand together, we all rise together."
Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, one of the bill's 40 cosponsors in the Senate, has told a number of groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, that the bill would be good for businesses because workers would have growing incomes to buy goods and services produced by U.S. companies.
"I believe a strong, vibrant middle class with greater purchasing power is essential for the economic growth of our country," Boxer said.
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