Labor unions invested heavily in Barack Obama‘s presidential victory, but the return on their investment may be awhile in coming.
Two days after Mr. Obama’s win, AFL-CIO head John Sweeney called the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a long-stalled bill designed to boost a union’s chances of organizing a workplace, the “No. 1 legislative priority” for organized labor.
But management and labor partisans agree that the early signs have not been favorable for a quick EFCA vote in the new Congress, despite Mr. Obama’s strong support and expanded Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. The Republicans’ success - barely - in denying the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate has made the divisive EFCA issue even more of a gamble.
“I suspect that there’s been a bit of a rethink going on,” said Seth Borden, a labor-law attorney representing management groups at Kirkpatrick Stockton. “A lot of the enthusiasm - and fear, on our side - has tempered off a bit.”
Both sides say the sharply deteriorating economy, coupled with such big-ticket items as health care reform and energy policy, will command the attention and resources of both the new administration and key congressional committees. With business lobbies and conservative Republicans geared up to fight EFCA, the Obama administration is seen as not wanting a distraction in his critical first days in office.
“We’re hearing [EFCA] probably won’t happen right away, and we feel good about that,” said Leigh Strope, spokeswoman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union. “It maybe will not happen in the first 100 days, but we don’t take that as a bad signal.”
Gerald McEntee, president of the influential American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told The Washington Times in an interview that EFCA was “payback” for the labor movement’s massive campaign effort for Mr. Obama and the Democrats. But he acknowledged the Republican Senate roadblock and the need for Mr. Obama’s coalition to “be more interested in the bigger picture.”
But unions expect a full-throttle effort in time on EFCA, he added.
“I think our people have to be able to see that the Democrats, including Obama, are fighting … for these kinds of things and not backing off or backing away,” Mr. McEntee said.
Top labor groups, including the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win coalition, see the bill as critical to reversing the long-term slide in union membership in the U.S. work force, giving unions a much better chance of winning organizing battles.
The core of the reform would allow workers to begin forming a union at a factory or other job site if more than half of the workers sign a card of support, while sharply restricting management’s legal and practical options in challenging the certification.
Unions say the current system leaves workers subject to company intimidation, while management groups say the proposed change would end the secret ballot on unionizing and leave employees subject to intimidation from labor organizers and co-workers.
The “card-check” bill passed the House in March on a 241-185 vote, but only 51 senators voted to end a filibuster in the Senate in June - short of the 60 votes needed to close off debate. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter was the only Republican vote for cloture.
There are early signs that conservative Democrats and moderate, labor-friendly Republicans may not be anxious for an early fight in 2009 over EFCA, at least in its current form. Sens. MarkPryor and Blanche Lincoln, both Arkansas Democrats, have expressed doubts about the need for quick passage of EFCA.
Sen. George V. Voinovich, an Ohio Republican facing a potentially tough 2010 re-election battle, had been thought a possible Republican vote for cloture. But he told The Hill newspaper this month that he was standing firm against the union bill.
“It’s undemocratic,” he said.
The National Journal in a poll of influential political bloggers in mid-December found that 32 leading Democratic pundits were evenly split on whether Mr. Obama should push for EFCA passage in his first year in office, with skeptics arguing that the economy and health care should be higher priorities.
Mr. Obama restated his unequivocal support for the card-check in interviews since the election, but has sent out mixed signals on his plans for the Big Labor agenda.
The labor secretary was the last Cabinet post Mr. Obama filled, nearly a month after he named Bill Richardson as his pick for commerce secretary. Labor nominee Rep. Hilda L. Solis, a five-term California Democrat, is also far less well-known than Mr. Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, a former Cabinet member and a rival of Mr. Obama in the Democratic presidential primary.
When Mr. Obama introduced Mrs. Solis as his labor pick, neither mentioned EFCA.