iOS app Android app More

Art Levine

Art Levine

Posted April 14, 2009 | 12:11 AM (EST)

As 'Secret Ballot' Myth Sputters, Chamber Launches New Anti-Union Attack Line


The battle over the Employee Free Choice Act is heating up again during this Congressional recess. The union movement is focusing on grass-roots campaigning and a TV attack ad on corporate greed, while the Chamber of Commerce is adding to the millions already spent on spreading myths about the bill with a new line of attack: the bill's arbitration provision would lead to commissar-like bureaucrats telling executives how to run their businesses.

As the Wall Street Journal sums up the new ad wars:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is launching a $1 million television advertising campaign that takes a new line of attack against the Employee Free Choice Act, highlighting a provision that would allow federal arbitrators to set the rules for unionization if management and employees fail to negotiate their own deal.

The Chamber TV spots running in the home states of key senators on the issue feature management-level employees saying the legislation would allow "a bureaucrat from Washington" to tell people how to run their businesses.

The new Chamber ads will hit the airwaves in Nebraska, Virginia, Louisiana, North Dakota and Colorado -- states whose senators could be swing votes on the issue.

The business lobby's ads follow a new round of union-backed TV ads designed to build support for the bill. One TV spot, launched Thursday, is called "Greed" and seeks to tap anger over Wall Street bailouts to aid the union cause.

Companies think they "deserve bailouts and bonuses for bringing our economy down, and then turn around and try to keep workers from joining unions to earn better wages and benefits," the narrator says as images of Wall Street flash on the screen.

A second ad that began running last week says the legislation would improve the lives of workers and help the economy. Labor unions have spent $10 million on ads for the bill since Labor Day. Besides TV ads, unions have hung 50-foot banners on a dozen office buildings in Washington that bear personal testimonials from employees about how unions help workers.


No wonder businesses are so eager to smear the legislation. And now, given that the false claims that the Employee Free Choice Act bans the secret ballot are starting to fall flat (in truth, it just offers workers an option of majority sign-up, or what opponents call "card check") it's not surprising that business interests want to paint another nightmare distortion of the legislation.

And since some leading banks and financial institutions are members of the Chamber of Commerce, it's also possible, some pro-union activists charge, that the Chamber is using the donations from taxpayer bailed-out firms to launch their new attack ads. The Chamber of Commerce denies it's using bailout funds to pay for its anti-worker campaign. But SEIU's Secretary-Treasurer, Anna Burger, lashed out at the Chamber of Commerce on Monday:


"The Chamber of Commerce's solution for fixing our economic crisis is to use funds from taxpayer bailed-out companies to fight smart economic policies that will restore balance to our economy and help rebuild the American Middle Class.


"Despite tanking our economy and demanding billions in bailouts, some financial institutions and their trade groups like the Chamber of Commerce are still fighting to protect a failed status quo of corporate excess. Their risky short-term profit schemes have put millions of Americans out of work; their long-term strategies appear designed to slow us down on the road to recovery.


"Over the years, the Chamber has made clear its stand against working people. They've spent millions blocking pro-worker legislation like the minimum wage, medical and paid sick leave, the Employee Free Choice Act, and expansion of children's healthcare coverage. They've used their influence in Washington to help build an economy where the average CEO earns 344 times what the average worker earns and taxpayer-financed bonuses and bailouts are just part of the cost of doing business.

"American taxpayers have had enough. The Chamber of Commerce must stop accepting taxpayer funds to lobby against taxpayer interests.

The latest provision under attack by the Chamber of Commerce requires arbitration after 120 days if workers and employers can't come to a contract agreement after a union has been recognized. It aims to put an end to the delays and stalling that lead nearly half of all union election victories to never achieve a first contract for workers. As David Madland , director of the American Worker Project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, points out, "The basic rationale for arbitration is that employers who want to remain anti-union continue their anti-union campaign after a union's recognized: they delay, stall, and avoid negotiating a first contract." In the briefing paper he co-authored, The Employee Free Choice Act 101, he challenges some of the myths about arbitration.

Essentially, Big Business claims that bureaucrats will order executives around and destroy their companies by imposing uncompetitive restrictions and pay demands. In fact, when binding arbitration is the law if negotiations fail, as in Canda, voluntary agreements are reached over 90% of the time. In American public sector agencies, where unions are especially strong, mandatory arbitration laws lead to as many as 90% of all contract negotiations to be settled voluntarily.

In addition, both parties in an arbitration process must agree on a federally-approved private sector arbitrator and there's no evidence that they tilt overwhelmingly pro-union.

Here are the full details about the reality of the arbitration provision, and they're worth reading as the myths about arbitration continue to spread with the same indifference to the truth as the secret ballot falsehood:

Myth 2: Binding arbitration prevents negotiation by imposing unreasonable time limits and will lead to the imposition of uncompetitive contracts.

FACT: Arbitration encourages negotiations and prevents companies from using delay tactics.

After workers win an election in favor of union representation, a first contract must be negotiated to govern labor management relations. Currently, corporations often engage in bad faith bargaining to prevent recently unionized workers from ever signing a first contract.

* Firms continue their anti-union campaigns through negotiations by using delay tactics that can cause workers to grow frustrated and lose faith in their ability to be treated fairly at the bargaining table. Only an estimated 38 percent of unions certified through the NLRB election process achieve a first contract after one year, and only 56 percent ever achieve a first contract.

* In Canada, where several provinces require binding arbitration if labor and management cannot come to an agreement, Karen Bentham of the University of Toronto found that workers who form unions reach a first contract 92 percent of the time.


The vast majority of contract negotiations are resolved voluntarily where arbitration is an option.

* The arbitration option does not mean that labor or management will be rushed into unfair agreements. All time limits under the Employee Free Choice Act can be extended by mutual consent of the parties...

*The threat of arbitration--not the actual use of the procedure--tends to encourage parties to voluntarily settle. Available research shows that 70 to 90 percent of American public sector contracts covered under arbitration laws are reached without a binding arbitration award.

FACT: Industry experts determine agreements based on current practices that are fair to workers and to management.

*Wage increases and contract terms resulting from arbitration tend to be very similar to those won through voluntary negotiations. According to MIT Professor Thomas Kochan, arbitrators make decisions that reflect what is occurring in comparable jurisdictions, and there is a widely shared norm among arbitrators that contract innovations are best left to the parties to negotiate on their own.[7] A 2001 Cornell University study looking at the difference between states with arbitration statues and states without such statutes found that police officers' wages were not affected by the presence of arbitration statutes.

Those are the facts, but it's still an open question if the business community will succeed in their drive to spread misinformation about arbitration like they have done, until recently, with claims that the bill will take away the secret ballot.

This past week's launch of the new mobilization drive and ad campaign are the union movement's best hope that they can tell their side of the story told in a way that will hold enough moderate Senators to ensure the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. As summed up by the pro-labor news service Press Associates, union supporters have some grounds for hope:

The nation's unions stepped up their mass mobilization to pressure Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, working over the two-week legislative recess to lobby lawmakers for the pro-worker bill. They unveiled a new round of commercials to run nationwide for it, while enlisting African-American leaders as key allies.

The object of the drive, which ratcheted up as Congress left town April 4 for its two-week Easter-Passover recess, was to garner the needed 60 senators to overcome a planned GOP-led filibuster against the measure, labor's #1 legislative priority...

The unionists not only have to lobby several Republicans to join to break the GOP talkathon, but also must convince several wavering Democrats -- notably Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb. -- to back an up-or-down vote on the bill, rather than letting the GOP talk it to death.

The African-American lobbying, coordinated by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, includes both secular organizations, such as the NAACP, and African-American churches. All convened in a national conference call LCCR organized April 8.

Their drive will focus on those states, including Arkansas, Louisiana and California, where African-Americans are a high proportion of the Democratic electorate. And it comes just after the bill's most virulent opponent, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, flew in business leaders from around the country to specifically lobby against it in presentations to members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The African-Americans' campaign for the law will focus on its economic benefits, especially to minorities, by pointing out the difference between wages of unionized minority-group member workers and non-union minority group member workers.

It's these sort of broader coalitions that are now being built, including with some small businessmen and other progressives, that will ultimately determine if the truth about the Employee Free Choice Act, backed by political clout, will propel it to victory.