No matter how one characterizes himself—as idealist or realist, optimist or pessimist, glass half-full or glass half-empty type of person—anyone who’s been paying attention has to be staggered by the fact that we live in a country where almost 90% of its workers are non-union.
That we once had nearly 35% union membership, and that those days of union pride and strong labor alliances happened to coincide with the 1950s—the most prosperous, vigorous and confident period in our history—shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
Today, in stark contrast (and with union membership hovering at just above 12%), we’ve lost our manufacturing sector, become victims to an out-of-control health care system, buried ourselves in an avalanche—trillions of dollars—of debt, and, in a cruel reversal of the economic promise of the post-war 1950s, managed to eviscerate the middle-class.
But there’s possible help on the way . . . maybe. The first significant move in decades to assist organized labor in its membership drives (going all the way back to the seventies, with the Democrats’ semi-serious attempt at revoking Taft-Hartley) was made yesterday.
On March 10, the Democrats in both houses of Congress formally introduced the long-awaited Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). By allowing workers to simply sign cards indicating they wished to join a union, the EFCA would make becoming union members substantially easier. And making it easier for workers to join a union could be the first step in replenishing and reinvigorating the middle-class.
To say that business groups object to the EFCA would be a laughable understatement. Not only do American businesses object to the bill, not only do they regard it as the most hideous piece of legislation since the New Deal, they are mobilized in opposition to it. Indeed, they have officially declared war against it. They have gone to the mattresses. They have vowed to see the beast killed.
As evidence, consider the efforts of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In addition to raising tens of millions of dollars in anti-EFCA lobbying fees, on the eve of the bill’s introduction, the Chamber of Commerce initiated a nationwide effort to bring nearly 200 business leaders to Washington D.C., and have them pressure congressmen to vote against it. They’re using a full-court press.
And consider: an anti-union lobbying organization called Union Facts, led by executive director Richard Berman, spent $20 million in 2008 alone on television and radio advertising assaults against the EFCA, singling out states where Senate races are shaky for the Democrats. Berman’s group is saturating these target states with anti-union campaigns, hoping to pressure nervous Democrats to back off.
That’s the “good” news. The bad news is rather bleak. Despite President Obama recently reaffirming his support for the bill (after having appeared to have backed off a bit from his enthusiastic campaign rhetoric), several Democrats are reported to be having second thoughts about voting for the bill. Having been inundated with pressure, they’re reported to be wavering.
Even with every last Democrat voting in favor, the EFCA’s sponsors knew that to get the 60 votes necessary for cloture (to avoid a filibuster) they were going to need a couple of Republican votes—and getting the opposition to sign on was always a long-shot. Now, with some Democrats now looking to abandon ship, the chances for passage appear even slimmer. That toxic lobbying campaign launched by Berman’s group is having its intended effect.
The anti-EFCA folks are not only hauling out all old newsreel footage of union goons doing the perp walk on their way to jail (attempting to imply that the typical union official is a criminal), they’re trying to convince people that it’s the United Auto Workers (UAW)—and not three decades of woefully incompetent and arrogant management decisions—that are responsible for Detroit’s current problems.
Business groups are trying to blame the perceived greed and corruption of labor unions for America’s economic predicament. Which takes astonishing nerve, considering that it was Wall Street itself, the singularly most non-unionized, hyper-capitalistic institution in the free world, that precipitated the recession.
Obviously, as formal debate on the bill proceeds (the legislation must be voted on in April), we’ll get a clearer picture of where its chances stand. But two things should be emphasized: First, not having the votes for cloture shouldn’t necessarily prevent the Democrats from pursuing its passage.
What would be so wrong in inviting the Republicans to engage in a public, tantrum-like filibuster—the kind we used to associate with the racist Southerners who opposed civil rights legislation? Show America how trivial the Republicans can be in using these parliamentary stalling tactics. Show the public how little regard the Republicans have for working people.
And second, President Obama and his chief honcho, Rahm Emanuel, need to cloud up and rain on any Democratic senator who balks at voting for the bill. Threaten to support their Democratic opponent in the next primary. Threaten to ruin their political careers. Play political hardball with them. It’s been done before. Do it again.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Borneo Bob,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor rep. He can be reached at email@example.com