Monday, November 10, 2008

For the nation’s labor union leaders, it’s time to cash in.

Having mobilized an army of workers to help elect Barack Obama, top union officials have not been shy about their plans to push a legislative wish list blocked under President Bush, and they say they will not wait. On the other hand, business leaders have not been shy about warning the president-elect against such early moves.

“American workers turned out for the election. American voters voted for Barack Obama. And American workers won this election,” Anna Burger, chairman of Change to Win, an activist coalition of unions including the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union.

She said union volunteers were critical to Democratic victories in such battleground states as Nevada, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia.

“We turned Virginia blue, and we’re going to keep it blue,” Mrs. Burger said.

Karen Ackerman, political director for the AFL-CIO, said her unions provided 250,000 campaign volunteers and 4,000 paid political staffers and “were the firewall that prevented John McCain from victories in the Rust Belt.”

AFL-CIO head John Sweeney said the labor movement’s “No. 1 priority” for the Obama administration is the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), designed to make it easier for unions to recruit and organize in nonunion workplaces.

The bill, anathema to leading business groups, has majority support in the Democrat-dominated House and Senate, but has not been able to clear the 60-vote mark in the Senate to end a filibuster.

With Mr. Obama’s election and sizable Democratic gains in both chambers, “we think our prospects have increased dramatically to get it passed,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka.

Business organizations have offered an early olive branch to the president-elect, but caution that signing the unions’ pet bill would make good relations with the administration difficult, when the overall U.S. and global economy face recession and severe credit problems.

The union organizing bill “clearly should wait until after we get these economies stabilized and creating jobs and putting more people to work,” Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Donohue said.

John Engler, head of the National Association of Manufacturers, said, “This is not the time and certainly not the issue to build a relationship” between the new president and the business community.

Bernadette Budde, senior vice president of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, said union leaders were in danger of overreaching.

“Just because they drove the engine doesn’t mean they weren’t in the caboose,” she said.

In his first pro-election press conference Friday, Mr. Obama said his first priority as president would be to create jobs and revive the economy. He was not asked about the Employee Free Choice Act, nor did he bring it up.

Union officials said the bill is needed to counter employer intimidation during organizing drives. Under the measure, workers could vote to form a union simply by signing a card, instead of by secret ballot, as is currently the case. It also calls for an arbitrator to impose a contract after 120 days if the union and management fail to agree.

Unions say the secret-ballot method gives companies the time to pressure workers and counter the organizing drive. The “card-check” method, they say, will make it substantially easier to force the company to negotiate.

Business groups counter that the secret ballot protects workers from intimidation from union supporters and fellow workers. Both sides agree that the change would greatly boost union membership, which stood at just 12.1 percent of the total U.S. labor force in 2007.

The chamber’s Mr. Donohue said it was clear the business community will be playing defense on a broad range of issues given Tuesday’s vote.

“I’ve been around a long time and I can count,” he said. “Given the makeup of the new government, it will be more difficult to advance certain business priorities and much harder to stop some anti-business measures.”

Both sides were trying to gauge the impact of the Senate vote, where Democrats have 57 seats with three races still undecided.

Jay Timmons, executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, noted that some of the incoming Democrats, including Sen.-elect Mark Warner of Virginia, are not automatic votes in favor of the labor agenda.

Mr. Warner is “a perfect example of someone who hasn’t put a stake in the sand on this issue,” he said.

But Change to Win officials said several moderate Senate Republicans can be “brought around” on filibuster showdowns, and the movement plans to keep up the pressure in every state.

Asked whether the labor group was willing to postpone a clash over the organizing bill to spare the new administration a bitter political fight in its first 100 days, Mrs. Burger replied, “No. Is that clear enough?”

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