Analysis: Adam Turl
EFCA on the ropes
Adam Turl reports on the bosses' backlash against the Employee Free Choice Act--and analyzes the shortcomings of organized labor's strategy.
April 3, 2009
A SENSE of imminent triumph in the house of labor has been replaced by uncertainty and unease about the prospects for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).
As Politico.com reported on March 26: "Key Democrats fled from the Employee Free Choice Act on Wednesday, saying they couldn't support the bill unless significant modifications were made, including some ardently opposed by labor unions."
The same day, Republican Sen. Arlen Spector, who was a co-sponsor of EFCA when it was first introduced in 2003, did an about-face and vowed to oppose the legislation. That means Senate Republicans will have the 40 members they need to use procedural moves to block votes on EFCA.
"The bill, as written," the Politico article concluded, "appears to have a slim chance of moving forward, and labor union supporters now fear it may be on hold until after next year's midterm elections."
EFCA was the major political priority of the U.S. labor movement in the 2008 elections. The proposal would make it easier for workers to join unions by giving them the option of bypassing a drawn-out National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) supervised election--a process frequently abused by corporations to intimidate workers--in favor of a simple majority of workers signing union cards to achieve legal union recognition. EFCA would also increase fines on companies that violate workers' rights and make it harder for employers to avoid signing initial contracts with newly unionized workers.
Needless to say, Corporate America didn't take kindly to EFCA, and spent hundreds of millions, mobilizing all its forces to defeat the legislation.
The anti-EFCA war had its intended impact. In addition to Specter's flip-flop, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson has called for compromise that would gut the legislation. Even one of EFCA's authors, Sen. Tom Harkin, has now said he would open up the bill to changes.
EFCA isn't dead yet--but it is in danger. There's still time to shift things, but that time is growing short.
Unfortunately, the blame for what's happening to the legislation doesn't lie solely with EFCA's corporate enemies, but also with the strategy of its supporters.
The AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor federations have been oriented on the Senate vote-count. Labor focused in on lobbying 10 key senators who wavered on the legislation, running pro-EFCA advertisements in their states.
There are a number of problems with this math-based approach.
First of all, in terms of lobbying and running advertisements, organized labor will always be outgunned by Corporate America. Lobbying is about access to the corridors of power. Running television, radio and newspaper ads takes money. Big business simply has more access and more money.
Secondly, organized labor approached individual senators as allies who just needed to hear good arguments in favor of the legislation and be shored up so they would do "the right thing"--instead of approaching the Senate as a collection of politicians worried about their own power.
And by focusing all their energy on lobbying "swing" votes in the Senate, the unions gave the most conservative Democrats the most attention in the political debate about EFCA. Thus, the entire media waited with bated breath for the opinions of two Arkansas senators who, though they are Democrats, are ultimately in the pocket of home-state union-buster Wal-Mart.
This was a lost opportunity. If the unions had launched a mass, grassroots and active campaign for EFCA, the media would be hearing arguments from workers about why labor law reform is needed.
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EFCA'S SETBACKS are in part the result of labor's misreading of the dynamics of the Democratic Party--again. While the Democrats have long counted the unions as part of their base and the party's liberal politicians are adept at making pro-worker speeches, the Democrats are, in fact, a pro-business party. The party's approach to EFCA reflects this contradiction.
On the one hand, the political shift that brought President Barack Obama into the White House and increased the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress has made it more possible to pass EFCA. But the dirty secret is that that this same Democratic Party is entirely capable of sabotaging its own legislation if Corporate America wants it to.
While Congressional Republicans--backed up by the corporate anti-EFCA blitzkrieg--were confidently denouncing the bill and planning for its defeat, Democratic leaders treated EFCA like a legislative stepchild, professing support, but not getting "too close." No senior Senate or House leader--House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid included--even showed up for the Capitol Hill press conference announcing the reintroduction of EFCA on March 10.
The White House also kept EFCA at arms' length and avoided putting any pressure on members of congress to support the legislation. And when Vice President Joe Biden spoke to union leaders about EFCA, cameras weren't allowed to cover the proceedings. Thus, when the bill was reintroduced on March 10, several former sponsors of the 2007 version of the legislation had already gone AWOL.
Why? Well, it's one thing for the Democrats to vote for pro-union legislation when there's no chance of it actually becoming law. It's quite another to do so when it is possible.
In 2007, with George W. Bush in the White House and a bare Democratic majority in the Senate, there was simply no chance of EFCA becoming law. Democrats could vote for the legislation to be on record as fighting for workers, yet be assured that their actions would not actually infringe on the interests of big business.
Now that EFCA is possible, however, some party leaders have apparently concluded that the "best" outcome would be to allow a narrow defeat for EFCA in the Senate, or a compromise that guts the legislation, or indefinite postponement. This would allow the Democrats to defend corporate interests while appearing to be loyal to their pro-union working-class base.
In fact, Congress has been caught in a tug of war between its increasingly discredited corporate patrons and an increasingly angry working-class base. Members have been weighing which course of action--EFCA's success or failure--poses the greatest risk.
Genuine grassroots pressure could tip the scales back in labor's favor. Democratic-controlled Congresses have passed pro-union and pro-working-class legislation in the past--in the 1930s and the 1960s in particular--when there was sufficient pressure to force their hand.
But lobbying alone can't produce that sort of pressure. Democrats who have turned on EFCA should not merely be challenged with words or targeted in the next election. Those politicians should be targeted with protests--now.
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ANOTHER THREAT to EFCA comes from supposedly "progressive" companies that are proposing an alternative process to expedite union elections.
Some on the left see this is an advance. In a recent article, titled "Corporate United Front Against EFCA Cracking," posted on the Web site of the magazine Political Affairs (published by the Communist Party USA), Joel Wendland cites two signs of a supposed corporate retreat--the so-called "compromise" proposal on labor law reform put forward by Costco, Starbucks and Whole Foods, and an admission in the Wall Street Journal that EFCA would not, contrary to the claims of its opponents, prevent the use of secret ballots in union elections if workers decide they want one.
Wendland argues that the Journal's acknowledgement of the truth about EFCA opened up the potential for Republicans (!) to support EFCA. He adds:
It is likely that many Republicans, without reading the bill, simply accepted the word of anti-worker television entertainers like Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck, and a massive 0 million ad campaign by big business groups like the National Association of Manufacturers.
In fact, one day after Wendland's article was posted, Specter publicly announced his opposition to the bill. So much for "Republicans for EFCA."
What about the Costco, Starbucks and Whole Foods proposal? AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff described it this way:
[S]ections of Corporate America have smelled the coffee and are looking for compromise legislation...Though their compromise is totally inadequate, it does signal that the ranks of Corporate America have been broken, and that passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is increasingly inevitable."
Of course, the fact that Costco, Starbucks and Whole Foods felt compelled to break with the Chamber of Commerce's strategy of total war is a sign of the times. Big business has been discredited by the crisis and by government bailouts for corporations. The overall terrain should be politically favorable to unions.
But labor needs to take stock of the balance of forces. There are more than 500 business organizations aligned with the Chamber's hard-line "no-compromise" approach to EFCA. Steven Law, general counsel for the Chamber, made Corporate America's position clear on March 10 while speaking to businessmen and Republican members of congress: "The only thing that stands between [EFCA] and your workplace is the filibuster. There is no compromise."
It should be further emphasized that only three companies have "broken ranks"--and there is a reason why it was these three. Starbucks and Whole Foods in particular--despite (or because of) a long and sordid history of union-busting--have tried to present themselves as "socially responsible," and are worried about their corporate images. Moreover, as most EFCA supporters have argued, including Wendland and Acuff, the "Third Way" proposal (as it has been dubbed) would gut EFCA.
The distressing reality is that things are going the wrong direction on EFCA. The proposal is losing support in the Senate, and Corporate America is increasingly confident that it will be defeated. There is no point in pretending otherwise.
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THE ONLY way to revive chances of passing EFCA is through organization, activism and protest.
Some of this is already taking place. As Acuff wrote of labor's pro-EFCA activism:
What grassroots movement can in the span of one week run 57 letters to the editor in newspapers across America, send 14,000 handwritten letters to 10 U.S. Senators and simultaneously plan 35 grassroots advocacy events with workers in 10 states?
America's labor movement, the AFL-CIO can. Now that the Employee Free Choice Act has been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate, organized labor's multi-state grassroots campaign is running at full throttle.
But is this really all organized labor can do?
Labor's muscle--its membership--has not been flexed in the battle for EFCA, even though union members and many other workers are itching for a fight, and on exactly this issue. Union members could be mobilized to pressure senators who have dropped their support for EFCA, as well as to protest companies and CEOs involved in the anti-EFCA campaign.
In such an activist pro-EFCA campaign, organized labor could win the support of tens of millions of nonunion workers to back the legislation. For example, a Gallup poll released March 17 showed that a solid majority of 52 percent favored laws making it easier to join a union. Previous polls have shown even greater support.
More worrisome, however, was that the Gallup poll showed only 12 percent of Americans were following the debate around EFCA closely. Another recent poll found that only half of respondents were even clear as to what EFCA was.
Organized labor, by focusing on the Senate vote count at the expense of much else, has simply not done a good enough job educating the people about EFCA and the reasons why working people should pull out all the stops to support it.
While there have been some important rallies and protests called by local union federations, union locals and chapters of Jobs with Justice, more can and should be done.
Certainly, the moment is right to target big business. Today's corporate giants have clay feet. After Citibank joined fellow ward of the state Bank of America in organizing anti-EFCA conference calls, unions sent a letter to the Treasury Department in protest. But this is a political crack that labor could drive every unionized truck in the country through--if it looked beyond the Beltway.
Some chapters of Jobs with Justice and student groups have organized protests at these banks. Unions and pro-worker groups everywhere should follow this example.
Industrial action could also have an impact. For example, what if Teamsters at UPS refused to deliver packages to Bank of America for just a single day? They would be heroes--and it could connect the struggle for EFCA to the fight against corporate greed in the public imagination.
As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas famously said, "Without struggle, there is no progress." At the end of the day, our fight isn't about one piece of pro-labor legislation--however important it may be--but building a militant rank-and-file workers' rebellion that can change the world.
EFCA is one battle in that war--and we could still win that battle. But only if we fight.
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