No Magic Number

When Barack Obama won the presidency and the Democrats won an overwhelmingly large majority in Congress, it appeared that the labor movement was poised to get one of its primary goals.

The Employee Free Choice Act, which would streamline union certification and strengthen penalties against companies, looked like it would finally win approval and be signed into law by the new president.

But legislation, which has been called “the most important legislative proposal in 70 years” by the AFL-CIO, remains stymied. The reason is the prospect of a filibuster, with enough Democrats refusing to vote for cloture to keep the legislation, which has majority support, from reaching the Senate floor.

EFCA would create a card-check provision under US labor law, certifying unions after a majority of employees at a company sign authorization cards, establish mediation and arbitration processes if a contract cannot be agreed to and set civil penalties and authorize more aggressive injunctive processes.

The bill, according to the AFL-CIO, will help revitalize the labor movement, which is important if American workers are to regain the ground they’ve lost over the last three-plus decades.

“The best opportunity for working men and women to get ahead economically is by uniting with coworkers to bargain with their employers for better wages and benefits,” an AFL-CIO fact sheet says. “These are tough economic times—soaring gas and food prices, home foreclosures, unaffordable health care, and shattered retirement security. Wages for working men and women have stagnated while pay and bonuses for CEOs have sky-rocketed.”

EFCA removes the “unfair barriers to union representation and collective bargaining” that currently impede workers’ ability to organize, “so that workers can get their fair share and improve jobs and benefits for everyone.”

“It will help workers achieve the American Dream by giving them the freedom to choose a union and bargain collectively,” the union says. “It will mean that the economy can work for everyone again.”

Not everyone is buying that - including some on the Democratic side of the aisle. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Democrat from Arkansas, has come out against the bill (no surprise, really, given that Wal-Mart opposes it), and it is unclear whether other conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson, of Nebraska, will back EFCA in its current form.

Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said in early May that he didn’t think there were enough votes to prevent a filibuster and that the card-check provision may have to be removed.

“Compromises are going to be made,” he said, according to the Boston Globe. “It probably won’t be card-check because too many people are opposed to it now.”

The failure to pass EFCA with a card-check provision demonstrates the danger of buying into Washington’s partisan mindset. Democrats, thanks to Arlen Specter’s self-serving party switch, are at 59 votes (57 plus two independents) and will hit 60 when Al Franken is sworn in as Minnesota’s second senator. That would give them enough votes to invoke cloture and end filibusters.

This, of course, requires that every member of the Democratic caucus vote in unison, which is not likely to happen.

This means that EFCA is dead for now, unless pressure can be applied to those Democrats and moderate Republicans who have shown some sympathy for organized labor in the past. Call it, as author and blogger David Sirota does, the “make him do it” dynamic, the mass mobilization of supportive citizens who make it clear to their elected representatives that they want something done and there will be consequences for politicians who fail to do it.

The EFCA fight, unfortunately, has yet to move into this territory. As Sharon Smith, author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, wrote recently on an Internet newsletter, the battle is being waged with money and public relations and that gives business a huge advantage.

“(T)his new phase of the class struggle cannot be won via dueling television ads, however much popular sentiment tilts toward unions,” she wrote on Dissident Voice ( “Anti-union corporations spent $50 million on ads skewering Democratic Party candidates during last fall’s Congressional campaigns, while unions mustered only about $10 million for the same purpose against Republicans.”

That’s a huge disparity in cash, one that can only be offset with boots on the ground.

“Unions,” she says, “need to mobilize the millions of workers who are enthusiastic union supporters to gain the upper hand in this struggle.”

Hank Kalet is a poet and online editor for The Princeton Packet newspaper group. E-mail; blog; Twitter,

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2009

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