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We are witnessing one of the fastest betrayals of the Democratic Party base in modern memory, as President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party leadership in the Senate slither away from a crucial constituency, the labor movement, and from support of labor’s key legislative agenda item: passage of a bill, “The Employee Free Choice Act,” which would restore a measure of fairness to labor relations.
Obama, who once supported the measure, and who campaigned saying he would sign the bill, has stood shamelessly silent as a massive corporate campaign mounted by such lobbying powerhouses as the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation, hiding behind a fake “citizen action” organization called the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace (sic), has descended on Congress, and especially the Senate, has worked to peel away support for the bill among both Democrats and swing Republicans who had formally backed the measure.
The business lobbying campaign is having considerable success. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), who is facing a Republican primary threat next year from a conservative challenger, has already announced that he will not support allowing the Employee Free Choice Act to go to the floor for debate and a vote in the Senate. As well, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), a former co-sponsor of the bill when it was last introduced in the Senate in 2007, now says she will not support it.
Since 60 votes are needed to move a bill past a Senate filibuster vowed by Republicans, Specter’s defection is particularly damaging. It is also a betrayal of the many unions that have consistently backed this sometimes unpredictable Republican. But Feinstein’s volte face is a particularly odious betraytal of her union backers in heavily unionized California. With senators like Feinstein caving in to corporate anti-union pressure, it makes it less likely that Senate Democrats would or could move to push the bill through past a filibuster by more confrontational means, such as attaching it to a budget bill that would not be subject to a filibuster—something Republicans did a number of times when they had control of the Senate between 2002 and 2006.
Clearly, the key turncoat in this sorry tale is Obama, whose presidential campaign would have sunk into oblivion early had it not been for powerful support from key elements of organized labor. It was also undeniably organized labor’s army of grass roots backers that handed him victory, a majority of the popular vote, and a mandate for “change” in November over Republican John McCain.
If Obama were to strongly advocate for Employee Free Choice, he could clearly line up the backing needed to win its approval in both houses. Moderate Republicans like Specter need Obama’s support for their own pet bills, and would have no hope of accomplishing anything, much less bringing home the bacon that they need in order to win re-election, without the president’s willingness to support them. This gives Obama enormous clout if he wants to use it. Wavering members of his own party, like Feinstein, would also certainly respond favorably to his calls for backing on a key issue for his base. But he has chosen instead to duck this issue.
Anyone who thought, as I once did out of an excess of optimism, that this president was positioned to act in this economic crisis as did the once equally reticent Franklin Roosevelt before him, should see clearly now that this president is not that same kind of bold risk-taker as FDR. Obama, rather, is following in the well-worn path of gutless political hacks before him like President Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, kowtowing to the wishes of the corporate elite and taking the Democratic grassroots for granted.
Employee Free Choice, which would have reversed 50 years of steady erosion of workers’ organizing rights by ending employers’ ability to stall off union elections for years, fire union organizers with impunity, and intimidate pro-union employees, by mandating that unions be recognized once they had obtained signature cards of support from over 50% of a work unit, is only one sign of this betrayal, of course, but it is a significant one.
Meanwhile, even as the Employee Free Choice bill is swirling around the drain, a new study is giving the lie to the main argument the corporate lobbyists have been using to win over one-time backers like Specter and Feinstein: the fear-mongering claim that facilitating unionization in a recessionary time could lead to business failures.
Not so, says labor economist John DiNardo of the University of Michigan, who just released a study titled “Still Open for Business: Unionization Has No Causal Effect on Firm Closures,” published by the Economic Policy Institute
DiNardo’s study cites two surveys of similar enterprises at which workers either narrowly won union votes by 51% or narrowly lost by 49%. These surveys, covering the period 1961-2004, found “zero correlation” between a company’s being unionized and the likelihood of its failing.
“I don’t think business leaders or people like Sen. Specter are crazy,” DiNardo says. “Many of them probably honestly do believe that having a union increases the likelihood of business failure, but the evidence is just not there. In fact, wages don’t always even go up when a company is unionized.”
DiNardo speculates that what really may cause many corporate managers and business owners to bitterly oppose unionization is not the fear of business failure or even perhaps of higher labor costs, but rather the fear of losing control over workers.
“Business managers in non-union firms are more like monarchs,” he says. “With a union, a company becomes slightly more democratic, and the manager becomes more like a president.”
That puts the name of the anti-Employee Free Choice Act business lobbying coalition in an interesting light. Obviously no corporate lobbying organization is actually in favor of democracy in the workplace, as their name deceptively implies.
This betrayal of workers is not the first betrayal of the Democratic base by Obama and Congressional Democrats. Scarcely two-thirds of the way through his first 100 days, Obama has also already betrayed a vow to end the Iraq War, having announced his intention to leave upwards of 50,000 trooops in that benighted and blood-stained nation for years to come.
Instead of closing Guantanamo, he has made a vague promise to close that horror show a year from now, but then left open the possibility of continuing to hold people indefinitely without charge, and even left himself a loophole to torture them.
Instead of restoring the Constitution, Obama has already begun adopting the Bush practice of using signing statements to assert an unconstitutional presidential authority to ignore laws passed by the Congress.
Instead of assuring that the laws of the land be faithfully enforced, as he swore in his oath of office, and promised in his campaign, Obama has refused to order a Justice Department investigation into whether members of the prior administration should be charged with crimes such as torture or lying to Congress.
This litany of betrayals shows that rather than audacity, this president has chosen mendacity. Instead of change, he is giving us at best small change, and when it comes to abuse of the Democratic base, no change. (And I haven’t even mentioned his wholesale betrayal of ordinary citizens in his pro-Wall Street bail-out of the big banks and financial institutions.)
At least President Clinton waited two years before he began a wholesale sell-out of Democratic voters.
Obama isn’t even waiting for the honeymoon to end to start his betrayal.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org