- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

The government-affairs director of the AFL-CIO said he is certain that organized labor’s top priority — a law that would make it much easier for unions to organize businesses both large and small — will pass Congress and be signed by President Barack Obama.

“I have no doubt it will pass and will be signed,” William Samuel told reporters and editors of The Washington Times. He was referring to the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers the right to join a union as soon as a majority of them signed cards requesting union representation.

In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday, Mr. Samuel also said that the more than $300 million spent by labor unions to educate workers was crucial to the Democrats’ success in key battleground states, such as Ohio and Michigan.

The AFL-CIO, which is a federation of 56 labor unions, will keep its electoral organization in place in many of the 21 states in which it operated in 2008 and use its 250,000 volunteers to serve as a grass-roots lobbying network to pressure Congress, Mr. Samuel said.

The AFL-CIO’s agenda includes not just the Free Choice Act, also known as “card-check,” but also a substantial economic-stimulus bill, health care reform, expanded family and medical leave and paid sick leave.

In addition, Thea Lee, policy director for the AFL-CIO, said the organization favors looking into implementing a “transaction tax” on all securities’ transactions. The fee, she said, could finance an insurance fund that could, for example, be used for any future bailouts.

Mr. Samuel expressed concern about the nation’s stagnating wages. He said the card-check legislation would help reverse the trend.

“Workers haven’t recovered from the previous recession,” he said. The card-check bill is “integral to fixing the economy,” he added. “If we are going to have a consumer-led recovery, workers are going to have to earn more.”

“Restoring the right to bargain is a key to fixing the economy,” Mr. Samuel added. “We’ve spoken to” Mr. Obama, he said, “and we think he sees it the same way.”

Currently, only 7.5 percent of the private-sector work force belongs to a union, roughly one-third of labor’s proportion of 25 years ago. But Mr. Samuel cited polling data showing that 54 percent of nonunion workers said they would join a union if they could.

“That translates into 60 million” potential new members, Mr. Samuel said.

A reasonable goal if the card-check legislation becomes law, he added, would be to return union membership to the 35 percent portion of the labor force that prevailed during the 1950s.

Business organizations strongly oppose card-check legislation and have made clear in pos-telection forums that they would fight it vigorously. “This is not the time and certainly not the issue to build a relationship,” National Association of Manufacturers President John Engler said the day after the election. “Destruction of the secret ballot is not a positive thing.”

Under current law, whenever 30 percent of employees in a workplace sign union-authorization cards, employers have the right to demand a secret-ballot election. Under provisions of the unions’ proposed legislation that right would be revoked.

Another early labor priority will be “a pretty substantial economic-recovery package,” according to Ms. Lee. Mr. Samuel said such a package should cost “$300 billion or more,” including a bailout of the Big Three automakers if that is not completed this year. Other priorities in the stimulus package would include an extension of unemployment benefits, increased food stamps and large public-infrastructure projects.

Mr. Samuel did not offer any suggestions for who should be the new secretary of labor, but when asked about former Rep. David E. Bonior, Michigan Democrat, Mr. Samuel said he “would be a great choice.”

According to national exit polls, union members made up 12 percent of the electorate this year. These voters supported Mr. Obama over Republican presidential candidate John McCain by a 60 percent to 37 percent margin, exit polls showed.

Labor leaders have said the union vote was instrumental in the Obama victories in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Nevada. President Bush won Ohio, Florida, Indiana and Nevada in both 2000 and 2004. The labor vote was also pivotal in many close Senate and House elections, elections experts say.

Mr. Samuel asserted that the Republican Party “has lost the confidence of the ordinary workers and union members.”

Both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, a rival labor federation, worked hard to elect Mr. Obama and to strengthen Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. The AFL-CIO spent $53.4 million and its affiliates spent an additional $200 million on education efforts. The Service Employees International Union, which is part of Change to Win, spent $60 million alone, according to labor spokesmen.

Democratic successes in Senate races will make it easier to pass a card-check bill. In 2007, the House easily passed the measure, but a Republican-led filibuster stopped it in the Senate.

In the interview, Mr. Samuel and Ms. Lee repeated labor’s opposition to the free-trade agreements the Bush administration has negotiated with Colombia and South Korea.

Ms. Lee described the Bush administration’s efforts to pass the Colombia deal during the current lame-duck session as “continued delusional thinking of President Bush.”