Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Big Picture and the Strike on Unions and The Employee Free Choice Act Part I: The History, The Stakes and The Looming Battle

The Strike: Today, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) will introduce The Employee Free Choice Act, a bill intended to make it easier for workers to organize. Democratic leaders have indicated that they want to pass the bill this year, and President Obama has said that he supports the measure. Today begins our coverage of this extraordinarily important piece of legislation, as The Big Picture draws upon his major in American history to explain why the bill is so important. I will also provide the details of the political battle set to ensue in Congress. Tomorrow, The Big Picture will address the common objections to this law, as well as the skepticism with which many educated liberals and centrists view the labor movement.

The Big Picture: Even though it has not been well-publicized, the Employee Free Choice Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation in a generation. Its passage will enable a re-unionizing of the labor force, putting us back on the road to long-lasting, broadly-shared prosperity and a much stronger democracy. Its failure will be a devastating blow to all of us who want to prevent America from declining into a grossly unequal Third World country where our ever-shrinking wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few shortsighted selfish rich, while most people are poor and disenfranchised. This may sound like an extreme characterization of the stakes of this fight, but a look at history shows that for America to be a prosperous middle-class democracy, we need a strong labor movement.

Until the mid-1930s, the collusion of business and government kept unionization low. The result was incredible concentration of wealth at the top and what we would now consider serious poverty for most people, who lived devastatingly insecure lives. Isolated without a union and forced to compete against every other worker, they lacked job security, health care security, retirement security, and protection from injuries and layoffs while on the job, and their wages were extremely low relative to those who owned the means of production. While business controlled the levers of power in government, workers were on their own and had no power to change the laws to give them opportunity, security, and even a minimum wage.

In the 1930s, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, and with support from President Roosevelt, organized labor began a decades-long surge. The percentage of workers in unions climbed upwards of 30% from about 1938 to 1975 or so. Union workers, boosted by solid pay, job security, and actually having a decision-making role, created the enormous industrial giant that won World War II as the arsenal of democracy and produced the greatest broadly shared prosperity in the history of the world. Collective bargaining through unions leveled the playing field and created the American middle class, gave workers money and security to get better education, and gave workers the steady wages and security which enabled consistent spending to sustain a booming economy. Furthermore, the far more liberal outlook of workers in unions - and labor unions' new found political power - allowed for farsighted investments in education and infrastructure that enabled broadly shared prosperity, and provided money and support for the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, despite all their fears that unionization would mean the end of capitalism, business and the rich did quite well in this booming mid-century America.

However, as unions have deeply declined in the past 30 years, we have gone back to the bad old economy of deep inequality, declining wages for the bottom 90% of American workers, and huge levels of insecurity and indebtedness. This downward trend for the vast majority of Americans has given corporations and free-market ideologues enormous power over politics, which has prevented necessary investments in education, health care, and green energy, and stripped security and power from American workers. To sum it up, when unions were at their strongest, the American economy and American economy was at its zenith. The decline of unions is, in my opinion, the most important underlying factor leading to our current economic crisis. We will only get out of this crisis through growing the middle class and protecting it from the last three decades of squeezing that is directly due to the decline of unions. Unionization will also solve pressing political problems: we got into this mess because the political system was far too responsive to elites who pressed for their own narrow interests in the short term. Strong unions aggregate the power and money of workers to create a political force that cannot be ignored. Additionally, being a member of a union creates a worldview the opposite of the selfish shortsighted one that got us into this crisis: instead a union member has to think in terms of the collective good, recognize how we're all in the same boat, and plan for the future.

The Employee Free Choice Act fixes the most fundamental obstacles to unionization. In recent decades, it has become essentially impossible for workers to create unions. First, by allowing workers to sign up for a union, it does not "eliminate the secret ballot" as you'll hear the anti-union forces claim; it allows a level playing field where labor advocates and anti-labor advocates have an equal chance to make their choice about whether to join a union (which polls show most workers would do). In the current situation union organizers are, for all intents and purposes, prevented from talking to workers. In contrast, the employers can promote anti-union propaganda day-after-day in the workplace, they can attempt to convince workers that joining a union will cost them their jobs, and they will threaten to fire employees who try to join a union. And that's a best-case scenario. Much more commonly, companies hire anti-union consultants and security guards to identify, harass, intimidate, and fire union organizers. This is technically illegal, but the law makes it extremely difficult to prove. Even if the violations are so egregious that they surpass the high burden of proof, the resulting fines are tiny, incredibly small in comparison to the cost to the employer of having a union. Not surprisingly, unless there is enormous public pressure, the company will take the "risk" and actively suppress union organizing. The Employee Free Choice Act significantly increases the enforcement of labor laws and the penalties for non-compliance. It also prevents employers from dragging on the process forever - which is what they almost always do - by imposing mandatory arbitration after a few months. The Employee Free Choice Act is the key step to stopping the decades-long war on labor that has dragged America to the brink of collapse, and reversing course back towards a middle-class democracy.

The Strike: The Employee Free Choice Act, if Democrats are up for a push, will be probably the biggest fight in Congress this year save for the President’s ambitious budget. The House almost certainly has enough votes to pass the bill. In 2007, the House passed the bill 241-185, with 13 Republicans joining all but 2 Democrats in voting yes. Only 8 of those 13 Republicans are still in the House, by the way. With the Democrats gaining 24 seats since then, they probably have at least another 15 or so votes. The business lobby’s effort against the bill probably has scared a few of those Republicans, and several Democrats, into voting no. However, it’s a safe bet that there will be at least 240-250 votes in the House.

The real battle comes in the United States Senate, where Democrats will need 60 votes to cut off a Republican filibuster. In 2007, the motion to cut off debate received 51 votes. All 50 Democrats present voted yes (Senator Johnson of South Dakota was recovering from illness). The only Republican to vote in the affirmative was Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Since then, the Democrats have gained at least 7 seats, pending the recount saga in Minnesota. Assuming Al Franken is seated as the 59th Democrat, and Senator Specter doesn’t cop out, we’ve got ourselves 60 votes! Before you get those union cards out though, there are a few important caveats. First, you can bet Norm Coleman’s team will keep that recount going as long as possible so that Senator-elect Franken won’t be seated in time for a vote on the Employee Free Choice Act. Second, Arlen Specter faces the real possibility of a primary challenge from former Rep. Pat Toomey, an arch-conservative who almost unseated Specter in 2004. It may not look good to the increasingly conservative primary electorate in Pennsylvania to support EFCA. However, Specter has always been an ally of organized labor, and if he wants to have any chance in the general election, he would probably have to support the bill. Finally, there are a couple of Democrats who voted yes last time around who are now on the fence. Two Democrats in anti-union Southern states, Senator Lincoln of Arkansas, and Landrieu of Louisiana, have indicated that they are still undecided. Certainly, the chambers of commerce in each of those states has probably threatened to steamroll them if they side with the unions. Senator Landrieu was just reelected this past November, so she has no excuses. She knows in her heart that this is the right thing to do, and does she really think this issue will factor in her 2014 reelection bid? Did her 2002 vote on Sarbanes/Oxley play a big role last year? I don’t think so. Senator Lincoln is up for reelection next year. She is very popular in Arkansas, and would be a heavy favorite whether she votes for EFCA or not. But in her case, I can understand the political risk.

So what happens if we’re short of 60 votes for one of these reasons? There are two ways, in this case, that I think we can still get the bill passed. The first would be to get together one of those “Nelson/Collins”-type moderate groups to hammer out some sort of “compromise.” Obama has said that he’s willing to negotiate as long as the other side isn’t purely motivated by ideological hatred of unions. In this case, for example, maybe the “reasonable centrists” would still require the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union if a majority of workers signs a union card, but would strip out the requirement that businesses begin bargaining within ten days after the union has been recognized. Or it could be the other way around. Maybe this group would still force businesses to bargain with newly-formed unions within 10 days, but the NLRB would still only recognize a union formed through a secret-ballot election. If I had to be money, I would guess that the second scenario is more likely, because the business lobby has done a good job defining the bill as a measure to “strip workers of their right to secret ballot.”

The other option would be what I call the “all hands on deck” option. In this case, the Democrats would not compromise any of the content in the bill. Instead, President Obama would begin a months-long sales pitch advocating passage. He’d go into the states of the wavering moderate Senators, and speak directly to constituents about why the bill will improve their quality of life. David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, would deploy an army of volunteers to push support at the grassroots level. As the popular Obama becomes a spokesman for the bill, it’s prospects improve, and the 60 votes suddenly seem attainable.

I wish I could say with certainty that the “all hands on deck” option is in the cards. President Obama has only, so far, given lukewarm support for the bill. He certainly hasn’t seemed as eager to talk about it as he has other parts of his legislative agenda. Furthermore, the corporate lobbyists are powerful, they have a lot of money, and they’ll fight tooth and nail to see this defeated. It’s up to all of us to fight back. The bill is enormously important for a number of reasons. It would help erode massive income inequality, it would empower workers by increasing their wages and benefits, and it could potentially give us a new spirit of unity and common purpose.

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