Reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer write that hearing Collegeville builder Gustavo Perea tell it, the prospect is frightening.

Some ambitious union organizer would take his carpenters out to a bar, buy them a couple of beers, get them to sign some union cards, and the next thing Perea knows, he’d wake up in the morning with a union shop.

That’s how he imagines the future if the federal Employee Free Choice Act is passed – a proposed Law that unions say would make it easier for them to bring unions into workplaces. It would allow workers to bypass traditional union-establishing elections if a majority sign cards that would authorize a union, a process known as card check.

“It’s a bad law,” said Perea, president of Adams-Bickel Associates Inc.

Union organizers such as Harry Arnold disagree.

“We are not afraid of elections,” said Arnold, who works locally for the Communications Workers of America and specializes in organizing cable and telecom employees. “It’s what happens during the time the company gets to intimidate the workers [before the election]” that worries organizers, he said.

Other provisions in the bill stiffen penalties for unfair business practices against pro-union workers and require binding arbitration if both sides cannot agree on a first contract.

Perea and thousands of other businesses are behind a big push to defeat the bill – President Obama’s top promise to organized labor, which provided important parts of the grassroots machinery that helped elect him. Experts say the bill might be introduced in the House in March or April, but the key Senate vote probably won’t occur until June.

The National Chamber of Commerce has spent $10 million in recent months opposing the proposed legislation, while labor, through the AFL-CIO and affiliate organizations, launched a $3 million advertising campaign in mid-January.

In the first week of February, both sides sent their troops to Washington to lobby in well-publicized events. Union workers delivered a petition with more than a million signatures supporting the act. The National Association of Manufacturers dispatched 50 chief executives.

Perea’s not surprised that passing the bill is organized labor’s top priority this year.

“Unions have been losing ground,” Perea said. “The world has changed. It’s an archaic and antique method of working.”

Arnold’s not surprised that defeating the bill is the chamber’s top priority this year.

“The extra weight given to this – obviously it’s a power struggle,” he said. “It’s not about the workers having an election, it’s about their [employers’] access to intimidate workers.”

For organized labor, the Obama presidency feels like a salve. His nominee for secretary of labor, U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis (D., Calif), backed the Employee Free Choice bill when it was introduced in 2007. And Obama encouraged labor by reversing Bush policies involving unions on large-scale public construction projects during Obama’s first month in office.

But Obama has barely mentioned the Employee Free Choice issue since he won.

Advisers and outside political strategists say that Obama cannot afford to get bogged down in a nasty fight on the polarizing issue at the same time he is trying to right the economy.

Obama said in an interview last week that he would proceed carefully, urging labor and business groups to work together on a compromise proposal that would remove impediments to organizing while addressing the “legitimate concerns” of business.

“Whether those conversations can bear fruit over the next several months, we’ll see,” Obama said. “But I’m always a big believer [that] before we gear up for some tooth-and-nail battle . . . we see if some accommodations can’t be found.”

By and large, labor leaders have held off as Obama’s economic-recovery legislation commanded the stage, but their patience might fade.

Unions must hold politicians’ feet to the fire, Fred Azcarate, one of the AFL-CIO’s point people on this issue, told hundreds of Philadelphia area labor leaders meeting in Atlantic City for a convention earlier this month.

Holding up his cell phone, he urged them to call a politician during their lunch break.

“We need to get our leaders and our members talking to them,” he said. “We’re on the verge of getting this done.”

From labor’s perspective, it can’t happen too soon.

After decades of decline, union membership as a percentage of the workforce has edged up slightly to 12.4 percent, or 16.1 million workers. But that blip is misleading; 25 years ago, one in five workers belonged to a union.

The numbers alone don’t tell the story of how steep labor’s decline has been, said Temple University history professor Bryant Simon. In the 1940s and 1950s, no serious policy issue was discussed in America without labor having “a seat at the table,” he said.

Philadelphia Inquirer

ACTION ALERT: Contact your elected officials and tell them how you feel: Oppose the Employee Free Choice Act