Barry Fields is a union president and watches the financial collapse as closely as the next guy. But he also is one of 250,000 union campaign volunteers, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in financing, and his concerns don't end with the economy.

Beyond the presidential race, unions are pushing hard for candidates - especially for the U.S. Senate - who have pledged to support the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation that would make it easier for unions to represent workers and negotiate contracts.

"As far as political legislation, it's labor's No. 1 issue," said Fields, president of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union Local 6 in Philadelphia.

Fields was on hand earlier this month when a converted bus, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO's roving campaign quarters, dropped by the Stroehmann Bakery on Ridge Pike in Norristown to leaflet workers about labor issues, including the Employee Free Choice Act.

Not surprisingly, business interests are mobilizing in opposition.

"I think businesses are very worried about it," said Glenn Spencer, executive director of the Workforce Freedom Initiative, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's well-funded campaign to defeat the bill and other labor efforts.

"This bill has been flying under the radar screen even though it would change the economic and political landscape of the country," said Spencer, who would not specify how much his group was spending in its fight.

"There is no doubt that the workplaces that have unions in them are not as flexible as nonunion companies," Spencer said, talking about the economic effect.

"Companies establish their pay policies based on what keeps them competitive in the marketplace," and unions interfere with that, he said.

"You are talking about a vast increase in unionization," he said. "And if it means that it is easier to organize, that means unions wouldn't have to put as much money into organizing and can put more into politics."

Organized labor is indeed pouring millions into politics, with every major union endorsing Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat, who is supporting the bill. Obama's Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, opposes the measure.

The bill would set up a National Labor Relations Board-supervised alternative to the NLRB's usual secret-ballot union-voting system, allowing unions to be named as bargaining agents if a majority of workers sign cards or petitions seeking representation.

The petition, or card-check, process already is legal if companies agree.

For example, the United Steelworkers union gathered signatures and now represents employees at the Gamesa Technology Corp. Inc., of Fairless Hills, because the Spanish owners of the company said they believed it would lead to a productive relationship with the union.

Unions say the measure is needed because management often draws out the secret-ballot process so it has more time to dissuade workers. Companies sometimes fire union activists; even though it is illegal, federal penalties are light.

Businesses stress the necessity of a private vote because, they say, workers can face pressure from peers to sign union petitions or be persuaded by union organizers.

An important, but less-discussed, provision of the bill is a section that would require both sides to promptly negotiate a first contract or face binding arbitration.

This is important to unions because they often win organizing drives, but then fail to obtain first contracts. Sometimes management may, as a tactic to avoid unions, refuse to bargain in good faith, as required by law.

After a year of delays, disgusted workers may decide to file an NLRB petition to drop the union.

Businesses do not like the arbitration section because the whole process can move too quickly, from union petition to binding two-year contract.

With stakes high, both sides have run extensive television and print campaigns, particularly in states where there are key Senate races - among them Colorado, Oregon and New Hampshire.

Labor, through an organization called American Rights at Work, bought a television spot pushing the bill and touting worker empowerment through unionism.

"It's part of the whole picture of [the] middle class losing economic power," said Karen Ackerman, who heads the national political effort for the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation.

In trying economic times, she said, unions provide a voice for workers, and union jobs generally pay more. She said unions also wanted improved health-care and trade policies that would help U.S. workers.

The AFL-CIO and its affiliates are spending $200 million to $225 million on political efforts. The nation's second-largest labor federation, Change To Win, which includes the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union, has $180 million to spend.

During Tuesday's presidential debate, organizations called UnionFacts.com and Employee Freedom Action Committee, both of which oppose the bill, fired back with a television advertisement featuring George McGovern. The former Democratic presidential candidate spoke in favor of the secret-ballot process.

Beyond the bill itself, these organizations point to the disadvantages of unions. One print advertisement, headlined "The New Union Label," shows "closed" sign hanging on a shackled factory gate.

Upping the ante is the increasing likelihood of the bill's passage. For years, it was a perennial loser in Congress, with President Bush vowing to veto it.

In 2007, though, the bill passed the House and had thin majority support in the Senate, even though it did not have the 60 votes necessary to move it to a vote.

"I think if Obama is elected, it will pass," said Jonathan Kane, a management lawyer and a partner in Pepper Hamilton L.L.P.'s Berwyn office.

Kane said his corporate clients would be unpleasantly surprised by what happened to them if the bill passed - although, he said, he probably would be able to increase his billable hours.

"We will see organizing that we've never seen before," he said.

"I'm going to get a high-end sailboat - just have to pick between the maroon and the black hulls," he said. "It'll be good for me, but it's bad for the economy."

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.