The opening salvo in what is likely to be one of the bitterest, hardest-fought battles on Capitol Hill this year begins today with the introduction of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a pro-labor measure that LBM dealers and others fear will make it easier for unions to organize workers at their facilities.

Matching versions of EFCA were to be introduced this afternoon in the House and Senate by Rep. George Miller, R-Calif., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, as principal Senate co-sponsor. Harkin's chamber is likely to prove to be the crucial one, as the legislation's fate appears to hinge on whether proponents can muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. The vote currently is so close that proponents are expected to wait until after Al Franken, a Democrat, finally wins the contested seat for Minnesota's junior senator. Franken would give Democrats 59 votes in the Senate, so even then proponents would need one Republican to join their side. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is considered a likely candidate. On the other hand, there's pressure on Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., to turn on that issue, so even more GOP supporters might be needed.

At issue is a proposal to require that an employer recognize a union's bid to represent workers if a sufficient number of employees check off a card indicating they want union representation. Currently, virtually all organizing campaigns have to be settled by a secret ballot of employees.

EFCA's backers say requiring a secret ballot is unfair because employers often intimidate workers during the campaign. "[E]mployees have no right to free speech, no protection against intimidation from supervisors, and are regularly forced to attend anti-union meetings," states a Q-and-A page from the House Education and Labor Committee, which Miller chairs. "They are also typically forced to attend one-on-one interviews with their managers to reveal their electoral preferences. In contrast, union organizers are not allowed to set foot on the property, the one place where all the 'voters' can be found."

Opponents of the bill, such as the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, say EFCA is un-American in that it will deny workers the right to a secret ballot. They also say the bill will cost jobs and isn't supported by the majority of Americans.

"Massive jobs cuts. Rising unemployment. Card check is apoison pill for our ailing economy," reads an anti-EFCA ad published recently in several newspapers circulated on Capitol Hill. In a sign of the cloture vote's importance, the coaliation also sent a letter on March 4 to all senators urging them to oppose every vote regarding EFCA, procedural and otherwise. "It is not enough to say 'I'm against the bill but I'll vote for cloture'," the coalition said in an e-mail to its members. "Cloture may seem like inside baseball, but this isn't complicated to message to our members. A vote for cloture is a vote for EFCA."

President Obama supported EFCA when it was proposed last year, and his administration is expected to favor the bill again. However, there is much speculation in Washington that Obama will give EFCA lower priority than his efforts to stimulate the economy and reform health care.

A number of regional LBM groups, as well as the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA), oppose EFCA. In its 2009 National Policy Agenda, NLBMDA says some unions have abused card checks. "Unlike secret ballot elections, which ensure that employees can cast their votes confidentially and without enduring peer pressure or coercion from unions or employers, card check elections have been legally challenged on the basis of coercion, misrepresentation, forgery, fraud, peer pressure and promised benefits," NLBMDA said.