- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2008


The legislative 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-elect 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 (EFCA), 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 yesterday, Mr. Samuel also said that the more than $300 million spent by labor unions to elect primarily Democrats to Congress and Sen. Obama to the White House was crucial to the Democrats’ success in many 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 it — and its 250,000 volunteers — to serve as a grassroots lobbying network to pressure Congress, Mr. Samuel said.

The AFL-CIO’s agenda includes not just card-check but also a substantial economic-stimulus bill, 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 financial transactions. This small fee, she said, could finance an insurance fund.

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

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

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

Currently, only 7.5 percent of the private-sector workforce are union members, roughly a third of labor’s proportion 25 years ago. But Mr. Samuel cited polling data showing that 54 percent of non-union 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 it enjoyed during the 1950s.

Business organizations strongly oppose card-check legislation and have made clear in post-election forums that they would continue to vigorously oppose it. “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,”Mr. Engler said, “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’ preferred method — also known as card-check — that right would be revoked.

The card-check bill should be included in “the first tranche of legislation” Congress considers, Mr. Samuel said.

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. Other priorities in the stimulus package would include an extension of unemployment benefits, increased food stamps and large public-infrastructure projects.

“A deep, prolonged recession is not the moment you worry about the budget deficit, ” Ms. Lee said.

Mr. Samuel did not offer any suggestions for secretary of Labor, but he did say that former Democratic Michigan Rep. David Bonior “would be a great choice.”

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

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 as well, elections experts say.

Mr. Samuel asserted that the Republican Party “has lost the confidence of the ordinary workers and union members that they are on their side.”

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. Mr. Samuel said the AFL-CIO spent $53.4 million and its affiliates spent an additional $200 million. The Service Employees International Union, which is part of Change to Win, spent $60 million alone, he said.

Democratic success 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 before it could reach a certain presidential veto. A Senate cloture vote to end the filibuster and proceed to a final vote received 51 votes. However, ending a filibuster requires 60 votes.

In the 110th Congress, Democrats had 51 senators, including two independents who caucused with them. In the incoming 111th Congress, Democrats will have at least 58 members (including the two independents). Races for Senate seats have not yet been decided in Minnesota, which is undergoing a recount, and Georgia, which will hold a run-off election in early December.

Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, co-sponsored the card-check bill in the 110th Congress. If Democrats manage to win one of the two seats yet to be decided, they probably will have reached the 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority to pass card-check. If Republicans take both seats, a filibuster-proof majority for card-check would not be assured. Insisting that the measure would still be passed, Mr. Samuel declined to name any moderate Republicans whose support he hoped to achieve.

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, who is also the AFL-CIO’s chief international economist, described the Bush administration’s efforts to pass the Colombia deal during the lame-duck session as “continued delusional thinking of President Bush.”

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