Earlier this week it was acknowledged by labor officials and Democratic insiders that the EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act), as presently written, wasn’t going to pass. While the bill may be reintroduced in a different form, the crucial “card check” component has been pronounced dead. Although labor wonks across the country were disappointed by the news, most weren’t surprised by it.
Despite all the hoopla and anticipation, skeptics had predicted long ago that this ambitious bill, which would have provided working people with far greater access to labor unions, had virtually no chance of passing. Why? Because it was too explicitly “pro-labor.”
Big Business and the Democratic Party (despite its lip service) simply couldn’t allow legislation this progressive to become law. Not for nothing has Taft-Hartley remained on the books for 62 years.
Let’s clarify what the EFCA was and wasn’t. First, it wasn’t the draconian, anti-democratic measure it was portrayed to be by its Republican opponents and back-pedaling Democrats (e.g., Senator Diane Feinstein of California) who, while schmoozing with organized labor, were looking to bail.
There was nothing “anti-democratic” about it. Clearly, it was “public,” rather than “secret,” but how is that anti-democratic? Legislators use nay and yea votes on the floor of Congress hundreds of times a year, and a show of hands is used everywhere—from city councils to school boards to company boards of directors. How is card check “anti-democratic”?
If you want an example of “anti-democratic,” just consider the system that exists today—a system that allows a group of workers who actually want to join a union to be nonetheless prevented from doing so by a combination of stalling tactics and company propaganda.
You say you want to join a labor union? Fine, you have that legal right. What that means, precisely, is that you have the legal right to “want” to join. But the company can make you wait months and months before you vote, and has the authority to force you to attend hours of mandatory “fright seminars.”
Management has the right to barrage you with anti-union propaganda. They have the de facto right to threaten you, intimidate you, offer you bribes and promises, and spread false or slanderous information. And while those tactics are more or less legal (if you think they’re not, try fighting them in court), what isn’t legal is allowing you to simply sign a card saying you want to join. Now how topsy-turvy is that?
Second, instead of depicting the EFCA as some sort of wildly “radical” measure, let’s put it in perspective. What the EFCA would have given American workers is what they already have in Europe and Canada. Yes, they have this arrangement in Canada—our calm, stolid, unimaginative, boring neighbor to the north. We’re speaking here of Canada, people, not Albania.
Accordingly, as anti-labor as some members of Canada’s conservative party are, they would, frankly, be taken aback, if not staggered, by the suggestion that Canadian workers not be allowed to freely choose whether or not to belong to a union. While Canadian conservatives may regard unions as detrimental (and harbor the conceit that they themselves wouldn’t join one if given the opportunity), they don’t interfere with workers who choose to join. If only our country were as egalitarian.
How ironic is it—given our fetish for personal liberty—that it’s harder for an American to become a union member than for a foreigner to become a U.S. citizen?
And third, let’s not pretend that this debate had anything to do with the freedom of choice, or adherence to the Bill of Rights, or any other noble-sounding issue. Opposition to the EFCA was no more about a worker’s constitutional “right to choose” than it was about George Washington’s powdered wig.
Let’s be clear: This whole anti-EFCA drive was designed to keep the unions out. Everything else is smoke. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce didn’t spend tens of millions of dollars to promote some abstract principle involving a citizen’s right to choose; they did it to pierce the heart of organized labor.
So who do we blame for the defeat? Obviously, when something as big and expensive and widely publicized as the EFCA falls on its face, somebody has to be held accountable. In truth, organized labor seems the likeliest candidate.
Not only was labor unable to speak with one voice (e.g., UNITE HERE’s battle, SEIU’s leadership scandals, Change to Win’s breakaway from the AFL-CIO, et al), but they once again allowed themselves to be sweet-talked and misled by the Democrats. Yes, labor had on board its Russ Feingolds (D-WI) and Carl Levins (D-MI), but there were too many other DINOs (Democrats In Name Only) eager to jump ship.
In hindsight, organized labor should have relied more heavily on the support of America’s four “most popular” unions—police, firefighters, nurses and airline pilots. This would have helped clear the public relations hurdle raised by teachers, autoworkers and longshoremen, unions that have been receiving bad press.
As much as we like to think we’re an “issue-driven” electorate, it’s often a handsome face, a nice smile, or a famous family name that wins elections. After all, isn’t it the cute weather girl who gets hired for TV, and not the nerdy meteorologist?
Unbelievable as this sounds, it was reported that one of Governor Rod Blagojevich’s staffers once told him “he had the hair” to become U.S. president. And polls showed that 25% of Republican males approved of Sarah Palin because they found her “hot.” (That whirring sound in the background is James Madison spinning in his grave.)
Still, organized labor may not have invented the game, but they’re compelled to play it. Therefore, “pretty” unions (police, firemen, pilots) are going to be more popular than the conspicuously “ugly” ones—like teachers, who are being blamed for the nation’s low test scores, and the UAW, which, as urban myth has it, was responsible for killing the American auto industry and Detroit along with it.
At the EFCA’s coming-out party, the American Labor Movement should have dolled itself up before entering the room. It should have made the grand, sweeping entrance worthy of a prized debutante. Instead, it chose to conduct business in its usual, plodding fashion. Granted, it’s easy to second-guess, but organized labor clearly needs a makeover.
Of course, we’re already hearing people say, “Wait til 2010,” suggesting the Democrats will pick up enough senate seats to have those 60 votes necessary for cloture. The problem with that logic is it assumes the Democrats want card check to pass. Alas, there’s little evidence to support that assumption.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org