After Barack Obama captured the White House with labor’s critical help in industrial swing states, union leaders expected a quick victory for their top legislative priority - the Employee Free Choice Act, which aims to facilitate the forming of unions at the workplace.
Flush with political victory, the last thing union activists expected was to find the measure stalled within a few short months.
But that - to labor’s consternation - is exactly where things stand as summer approaches. Chances have dimmed for securing the needed 60 Senate votes, and a congressional insider who backs the union agenda tells me his hope is for a watered-down version of the bill to emerge over the next few months. Labor would then face a choice of either supporting that compromise or fighting for the original bill once the makeup of Congress changes - at the earliest in 2011.
This is a bitter pill for labor, which regards the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) as its best chance to reverse long-term erosion in membership, which has weakened labor’s ability to negotiate with employers and exert political clout. Ineffectiveness in bargaining and legislative arenas reinforces the numerical decline - and downward goes the labor movement. EFCA could reverse this vicious cycle by beefing up unions’ institutional strength, thereby allowing labor to alter trade deals and labor laws in ways that protect jobs and provide leverage to win good contracts - sparking an upward trajectory for labor.
The measure lets workers form a union - if a simple majority signs a card requesting one - in addition to their current option of a secret-ballot election. Labor activists contend that the prolonged voting process lets employers improperly pressure workers to back off their support for a union.
Even the bill’s foes - primarily business and conservative groups, and most Republican legislators - acknowledge it would accomplish its goals of replenishing union ranks and strengthening the labor movement. They just happen to think those are undesirable outcomes.
Yet, a funny thing happened on the way to the celebration. Given that the political landscape includes a president who not only supports the measure but as a senator co-sponsored it, how could EFCA have stalled?
Business and conservative groups contend that the measure has been exposed as little more than a brazen power grab by labor that deprives workers of their sacred right to a secret ballot and opens them to intimidation by “union bullies.” Labor blames the difficulties on a “smear campaign” by anti-union forces that distort the truth while vastly outspending union forces.
Both assertions miss the mark.
Sure, there’s a quid pro quo in Democratic support for EFCA, but the corporate side ignores that the bill addresses a real problem. Simply put, it’s harder to form a union in the United States than in virtually any other industrial democracy. Complex labor law, coupled with rising employer resistance, means the right of workers to collectively bargain for better conditions exists on paper more than in reality.
Consider the 30,000 workers annually awarded back pay by the National Labor Relations Board, often after being fired or penalized by their employers for trying to form a union. Add the chilling effect this has on workers considering starting a union. And the sudden corporate concern for workers’ right to secret ballots would be touching, were it not for the $3 billion businesses pay annually to the burgeoning “union avoidance” industry to avert just such elections.
For its part, labor should stop complaining about business ads that distort the legislation. Sure, some opponents will say anything to criticize it - as I’ve learned firsthand debating EFCA’s merits on Fox and CNN. But, given the stakes, employers can hardly be faulted for vigorous advocacy. Labor’s problem isn’t the scorecard in a battle of dueling ads. Its real problem is twofold: economics and communications.
While a struggling economy infuses labor with new significance by spotlighting the struggles of average Americans, the challenges stemming from this bad a crisis can make initiatives such as EFCA seem like a luxury, or even a threat to the recovery. If Mr. Obama goes all out for EFCA, he risks the corporate cooperation he needs to face those challenges. Labor, unused to having its allies in political power, must craft a nuanced strategy that pushes its agenda without putting those very allies on the spot. We’ll see how deft labor can be on that score.
Labor’s second task is to raise public awareness of why its fate matters, after years of failing to craft this message. Absent such context, EFCA looks like an idea out of left field. One reason America has long enjoyed prosperity and stability is a robust industrial relations system where management, workers and, when appropriate, government present their views - and the best private practices and public policies emerge. The imbalance of recent years - with labor marginalized, government reflecting corporate interests and employers ascendant - is unsustainable and serves no one’s long-term interests.
If Americans came to realize it’s no coincidence that labor’s zenith, from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, marked the greatest expansion of the middle class in U.S. history, or that middle-class travails in recent years have come as labor has foundered, they might view all this with new eyes. If they knew that on average 16 Americans die daily in job accidents - and that union workplaces are safer - they might rethink the notion that labor is a dinosaur.
Until people know those things, until they connect the dots between what’s happening to ordinary Americans and the decline of the labor movement, they won’t care about something called the Employee Free Choice Act.
Nor, as a result, will their representatives in Washington.
• Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.