04/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Boosted by Pro-Union Poll, Labor Targets Blue Dog Congressman, AIG, Banks

The union movement has been buoyed by a new independent Gallup Poll yesterday showing that a majority of Americans favor the Employee Free Choice Act that would make forming unions eager.

(So far in the bruising battle between unions and corporations, the polling has been subsidized by organizations with a stake in the legislation, but the polling commissioned by the AFL-CIO at least had the advantage of truthfully presenting the key elements of the bill.)

But the mounting outrage over AIG's bailout and bonuses adds an even stronger fuel -- populist anger -- to the union movement's efforts to link outrage over corporate abuses to Big Business's unionbusting and opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act. As Elana Schor of Talking Points Memo DC pointed out earlier this week:

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Change to Win labor federation are wasting no time in seizing the political moment as anger flares over AIG's commitment to its own executives' bonus payments.

The unions, along with several other partners, are launching and planning protests on Thursday at the regional offices of bailed-out banks in more than 100 cities. The goal of the day: pressuring Wall Street into substantively changing its bonus-happy culture.

But there is a bigger goal for the day, one that goes beyond expressing anger at corporate abuse of power. The labor movement sees an opportunity to link the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the union organizing bill that is its No. 1 priority this year, to the growing tide of post-bailout populism.

Two of the banks to be closely targeted on Thursday are Citigroup and Bank of America, both of which have lobbied hard against EFCA while taking taxpayer money.

SEIU and Change to Win sent out letters, headlined "Had Enough?," to supporters and allies urging them to attend the rallies, and drawing the connection between the greed that wrecked the economy -- and, by implication, blocks workers from having a level playing field to organize:

Dear Friend:

Insurance giant AIG is the poster child of corporate irresponsibility. It gambled on the housing market and lost, big time. That's why the government had to dole out nearly $200 billion in bailouts just to keep the company afloat.

But word broke yesterday that despite being crowned the "Bailout King," AIG is going to pay out more than $400 million in bonuses.

We've had enough. On Thursday, March 19, thousands of people nationwide will demonstrate outside major banks and demand real change. We want you to join us...

The outrage doesn't stop at the bonuses. We finally found out how AIG has spent its bailout funds - it gave billions of dollars to other bailed out banks, including banks like Bank of America and Citigroup that are actively organizing against change for working families.

Just last week it was revealed that Citigroup organized a call to "build opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act." Bank of America did the same thing just days after it received its first bailout from the government.

We have major banks and financial institutions taking government money with one hand, and slapping working people in the face with the other. The very same people who destroyed our economy are now actively working to prevent its recovery.

Enough. Join our demonstration against corporate excess on Thursday.

Unions are confident that the first nationwide protests since the bailouts started will draw at least 10,000 activists, and a press release yesterday framed its appeal in a way that aims to draw together progressives working on major reforms:

WASHINGTON - With almost daily revelations of abuses by Wall Street giants, some 10,000 Americans will participate in over 100 actions in over 30 states on Thursday, March 19 to push the solutions needed to rebuild the economy on sound, strong footing. The demonstrations will take place at the offices of major banks whose behavior both before and since the government bailout epitomize an era of CEO and corporate excess -- at the expense of broader prosperity -- that has weakened the economy.

During the first coordinated national public protests since the federal bank bailouts began, working families and a broad coalition of community groups will join together to send a message to Congress that Americans have had enough-- and to call for quick action to pass measures that will help build an economy that works for everyone rather than just the few at the top: the Employee Free Choice Act; affordable, quality health care for all; and strong banking reforms.

But all this populist anger, if not channeled by the Obama administration towards the reforms and stimulus it's seeking, could turn against the new President and undercut his reform agenda.
As The New York Times reported Monday:

The Obama administration is increasingly concerned about a populist backlash against banks and Wall Street, worried that anger at financial institutions could also end up being directed at Congress and the White House and could complicate President Obama's agenda...

Mr. Obama's aides said any surge of such a sentiment could complicate efforts to win Congressional approval for the additional bailout packages that Mr. Obama has signaled will be necessary to stabilize the banking system.

Political risks could also be in play in the SEIU decision to target a "Blue Dog" Democrat, Rep. Dan Boren, for his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act with a hard-hitting ad linking his position to the death of a worker at a unionbusting industrial laundry, Cintas. Boren -- and other opponents of the pro-union legislation -- are being put on notice that they're open to attack for their position, although it may also raise the possibility that some persuadable legislators could be so offended by the Web ad that it might stiffen their potential opposition. The ad highlights the death of a father of four who was accidentally dragged into a heavy-duty dryer and died 20 minutes later after being violently spun around.

It may not have the reach of Big Business's multi-million dollar TV ad campaigns spreading the myth that the bill takes away the secret ballot, but the Web ad signals an important new message by unions: the human cost of denying workers their rights. As a letter promoting the ad told union supporters:

On the morning of March 6, 2007, Eleazar Torres-Gomez was killed when he
tried to unjam an industrial conveyor belt at an Oklahoma plant of Cintas,
an industrial laundry company.

He was dragged into an operating industrial dryer, and trapped inside it for
twenty minutes. Alone on the Cintas factory floor, no one could hear
Eleazar's screams as he was smothered and cooked to death inside the dryer,
which reached temperatures of up to 300'F.

It didn't have to happen. You see, Eleazar did not have the free choice to
join union, so no one could negotiate with his employer, Cintas, for safety
precautions that could have saved his life.

Oklahoma Congressman Dan Boren opposes giving workers the free choice to
join a union. He opposes giving fellow Oklahomans like Eleazar Torres-Gomez
the ability to negotiate for safety precautions that save lives.

This is not acceptable. Watch this video about Rep. Dan Boren and safety and Cintas, and then tell Dan Boren to protect Oklahoma's working

Here's the thing, though. Workers at Cintas' leading competitor, Aramark,
have the proper safety equipment and precautions in place. Why? Because
laundry workers at Aramark had the free choice to join a union, which fought
for the very safety measures that could have saved Eleazar's life. Today
Aramark has the proper precautions in place...

Tell Dan Boren to give Oklahomans like the Torres-Gomez family the kind of
representation they deserve. Ask him to support the Employee Free Choice

While the ad may upset some legislators in the hard-fought Congressional campaign over the Employee Free Choice Act, it's also a sign that, at least for some segments of the union movement, they're willing to fight the fear-mongering of Big Business with tough, emotionally provocative ads and messaging of their own.

And if such ads make the public angry at recalcitrant legislators or arrogant businesses, then, some advocates believe, so much the better for the union movement.

This tough new stance comes at a time when some Washington observers are starting to realize that business groups may have overdone their "secret ballot" propaganda blitz and risk undercutting their own political chances. As Politco reported earlier this week on what business groups call "card check," or majority sign-up:

Is the business community overplaying its hand on card check?

The suits seem nearly giddy over their apparent first-round public relations win against Big Labor over legislation expanding union organizing powers.

The Employee Free Choice Act, designed to limit management's ability to harass employees who want to form a union, is now better known as "card check" and has been branded a nefarious plot to rob workers of their right to cast secret ballots on whether to unionize.

It's a makeover, cemented by millions of dollars in advertising, which can make even the toughest labor honchos cringe.

But there's a risk in defining the legislation and the political fight so narrowly, labor advocates hope and some nervous corporate allies are beginning to warn.

"That argument is not going to hold up when senators see that the secret ballot is still an option for workers," said the AFL-CIO's chief lobbyist, Bill Samuel.

"Now they are shifting their argument, saying unions are bad for the economy. I don't think that holds up since a lot of economists, including [White House adviser] Larry Summers, are saying collective bargaining helps spread prosperity across the economy," he added.

Ultimately, populist anger at corporations could very well trump wily PR campaigns, especially if the public understands the devastating human impact of our current broken labor law system: