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Obama vs. Labor


In the span of, literally, a few weeks—beginning with President-elect Obama’s nomination of Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor, and ending shortly after his inauguration—organized labor has gone from a state of euphoria to one of confusion to one of resentment, then back to euphoria, and then back to resentment, before settling, finally, on something resembling Hindu fatalism.

This emotional roller coaster ride was propelled by one question:  How hard will Obama push to get the EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act) passed?  In a nutshell, the EFCA would make it extraordinarily easier for America’s workers to join labor unions by doing away with the necessity of NLRB-sanctioned union certification elections.

Under the EFCA, employees would merely sign cards saying they wished to join.  If a majority of them signed cards, presto!—they automatically become union members.  No more wildly biased management propaganda meetings, no more bureaucratic thickets, no more stalling tactics by company goons intent on torpedoing the organizing drive.  Known as the “card check” method, if fifty percent plus one says Yes, they have themselves a union.

When he was U.S. Senator, Obama not only voted in favor of the EFCA, he vowed to continue to fight for its passage.  Although the bill passed the House by a sizeable margin it was defeated in the Senate, where the voting adhered strictly to party lines, falling well short of the 60 votes needed for cloture, a plurality that would have made it filibuster-proof.

So what’s organized labor’s problem with Obama?  Didn’t he vote for it, and hasn’t he continued to strongly endorse it?  Simply put, union leaders believe he’s vacillating on his promise to make EFCA a legislative priority.  They hear him making noises about postponing action on the bill—ignoring it, allowing it to languish on the back-burner—until he’s taken care of more pressing business.

Not that this is all about selfish interests.  After all, everyone realizes the president  has a country to run and that Obama already has a full plate in front of him, what with the recession, Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, energy, education, and climate change, just to name the most obvious.  And special interest groups are renowned for being annoyingly nearsighted when it comes to demanding attention.  We all know that.

But a promise is a promise.  Accordingly, just as Obama recently announced that he will follow through on his celebrated campaign pledge to close the military base at Guantanamo, organized labor feels he’s obliged to follow through on his “pledge” to see that the EFCA gets passed.  The EFCA becoming law would be every bit as symbolic—not to mention infinitely more economically beneficial—as the closing of Gitmo.

Because labor’s expectations had been raised so high, and because it’s been so long since the Democrats have elected anyone this charismatic, Obama’s apparent reversal (or “recalibration,” as some are calling it)—especially considering the tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions he received from organized labor—has definitely created profound disillusionment.

And there’s another thing.  It’s been rumored that because the EFCA is expected to be such a knock-down, drag-out affair, Obama’s savvy chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has convinced the president not to get into a protracted pissing match with Congress until after the 2010 mid-term elections, which means there could be no action on the bill until 2011, at the earliest.

Some days ago, however, labor received a glimmer of hope.  Obama appeared to have “clarified” his position by once again maintaining that passage of the EFCA remained a top priority,.  But that hope withered only hours later, when rumors of “betrayal” and “abandonment” began spreading.  In truth, it’s a mess right now.  Organized labor doesn’t know what to think or whom to believe.

Also, let’s not forget that because the Republicans are so vehemently opposed to allowing unions to get a leg up, they’re not above resorting to old-fashioned parliamentary extortion to make sure this bill is defeated.  Unless the administration agrees to put the EFCA out to pasture, the Republicans are likely to threaten to drag their feet on Obama’s stimulus plan, his war curtailment strategy, and his proposed health care reforms.

If that’s their tactic, what would Obama’s response be?  As refreshing and inspiring as it would be to watch him defiantly call their bluff and risk placing in jeopardy his own ambitious agenda—all because he’d like to see more folks join labor unions—who among us honestly thinks he would do that?

Unfortunately (and confoundingly), Obama has labor pretty much in his pocket, just as the Democratic party has the African American vote in its pocket.  What alternative do organized labor and black America have when their Democratic leadership disappoints them?  Where can they go to seek better representation?  What can they do to “retaliate”?  Bolt the party and join the Republicans?

All we can hope for are two things:  (1) That Obama wasn’t pulling some grotesque con game on us, that he, indeed, has the conviction and guts to shepherd those programs he has championed; and (2) that progressive Democrats somehow manage to secure enough votes to push those programs through.

In the end, it all comes down to arithmetic.  How many votes you have.  Without the necessary votes, the Republicans are reduced to glorified spectators.  And with the votes, the Democrats—unless they chicken out again—could actually make a difference.  Passing the EFCA over the Republicans’ collective wail would be an excellent first step

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Borneo Bob”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at


David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

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