How Unions' Grass-Roots Organizing, Pragmatism Can Pass Pro-Labor Bill

05/25/2011 01:15 pm ET
  • Art Levine Contributing Editor, The Washington Monthly

While some Washington insiders are declaring the Employee Free Choice Act dead because of Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) recent declarations against it, they're not taking stock of key factors that could significantly alter the political landscape for the legislation.

With Congress in recess, unions are using the two-week respite to spark activism among not only union members but their progressive allies, including religious leaders, small business owners, civil rights groups and student organizations.

And contrary to conservative myth-making, some small businessmen see the value to their businesses and the economy of having decently paid employees and a strong middle-class. For instance, David Livingstone, a restaurant owner in Indianapolis, noted at a forum for small business owners how shrinking union membership in recent years among patrons has undermined their ability to go out regularly to his and other restaurants. He also credits his father's union job for helping him get an education and open a business, while also providing his father with the pension he needs in his old age. It's a heartfelt assessment that just isn't heard in the fear-mongering dominating the Washington debate over the legislation:

True, the voices of businessmen who favor the bill don't get heard inside the Beltway nearly as much as the $100 million-plus propaganda campaign against the legislation by business interests seeking to keep wages low, abetted by an anti-labor media coverage. Yet the scope of the unions' grass-roots mobilization is significant enough that it could allow those few Democratic senators who've been relatively cool to the legislation as written to find a reason to ultimately support the bill -- if it's modified by union strategists to mollify some of their concerns, without sacrificing the bill's core principles.

Even Senator Lincoln clarified this week that she could support the bill if it was changed. And with some changes and enough political pressure bought to bear, she could still potentially allow at least the bill to come to a vote on the Senate floor. Wal-Mart, headquartered in Arkansas, is helping lead corporate opposition to the bill, and their staunch anti-union activity is based in part on a truth recognized in a new economic report released yesterday by the Center for Economic and Policy Research: union members in the service sector receive higher wages than non-union members, and are likely to earn not just $2 more an hour, but are nearly 20 percent more likely to have health insurance.

Naturally, Wal-Mart is opposed to such reforms, especially if they've had to spend millions to reach legal settlements on wage theft and other abuses, like forcing employees to work extra hours without any pay -- or just locking in overnight workers.

But despite Wal-Mart's clout, union supporters are hopeful that they'll be able to get enough support from Senator Lincoln to assure passage by overcoming a filibuster, even though they're obviously concerned about her stance. As Stewart Acuff, special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, said yesterday, "We are deeply disappointed in Sen. Lincoln's statement yesterday, especially given that thousands of Arkansas workers have told her personally how important it is to Arkansas to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.."

Still, if this Southern Democrat, from Wal-Mart's home state (and a champion of an estate tax amendment aiding super-wealthy families), would allow the democratic process to go ahead on the Senate floor, then the bill can pass, as long as there are enough votes, 60, to end a filibuster..

As Acuff has pointed out, "The legislative process is dynamic and the bill may be tweaked in the process. The AFL-CIO continues to escalate our campaign for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act." Yet the current conventional political wisdom is seemingly based on the belief that the union movement will stubbornly insist on fighting to preserve every codicil of the bill as written, thus alienating moderates and dooming it to defeat. Its leaders are savvier and more flexible than that.

And as Democrats in Congress told Sam Stein of The Huffington Post this week:

On the Hill, aides involved with crafting the legislation say that they weren't entirely surprised by Lincoln's position. Noting that Wal-Mart is the major business force inside her state, they added that this is another step in the sausage-making process that leads to legislation.

"We have always known that Employee Free Choice Act goes through an amendment process and we are open to that," said one Senior Democrat. "What Sen. [Tom] Harkin [the chief EFCA sponsor] wants to do is work with anyone who wants to strengthen workers rights."

We interpret Lincoln's statement, the Democrat added, "as an invitation to compromise."

So with a willingness to compromise by the union movement and its Democratic supporters, the new grass-roots efforts take on added importance in helping union supporters to make their case to members of Congress and win passage of the legislation. As the AFL-CIO reported yesterday:

Thousands of workers, community allies and their families are in the midst of a major mobilization to support passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that will give workers the freedom to bargain with their employers for better wages and benefits. More than 300 events are planned across the country during the Congressional recess. Participants range from small business owners to union members to religious and community leaders. They are placing thousands of calls and letters as well as publicly thanking and calling on Senators and House members to support the Employee Free Choice Act.

"This massive grassroots mobilization shows that working people really want and need passage of real labor law reform in 2009," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "Without workers' freedom to bargain for better wages and benefits, our economy can't be rebuilt for everyone."

Some highlights:

* On Monday night in Maine, hundreds of people heard Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, talk about the importance of having a union on the job to provide better wages and benefits for families.
* In Arkansas, 150 people rallied outside Sen. Lincoln's office, asking her to support the Employee Free Choice Act and labor law reform.
* In Pennsylvania, dozens of people delivered hand written letters and cards to Sen. Specter at all his district offices.

Upcoming events:

* Every day, union and community members are holding "working lunches" across the country, writing letters and calling their members of Congress to show their support for the Employee Free Choice Act.
* [Wednesday] in Alaska, John Schmitt, senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, will join the Alaska AFL-CIO President for a debate against the Chamber of Commerce on the importance of passing the Employee Free Choice Act for economic growth.
* Also [Wednesday] in Indianapolis, faith leaders are holding a breakfast with Rev. Kim Bobo, Exec. Director of Interfaith Worker Justice on the importance of labor law reform for the religious community.
* In North Dakotat his week, business owners are standing with union members and elected leaders calling for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act..

Given all that, along with union and Democratic leaders showing some willingness to compromise, it's not surprising that union strategists aren't deterred by Senator Lincoln's latest announcement -- or the spin campaign declaring the bill dead. As Politico quoted one union strategist::

AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale just sent us a statement taking issue with the idea that this is the "final nail" for EFCA, noting that Lincoln says she can't support the bill in its current form.

"For the next two weeks, thousands of people are participating in hundreds of events across the country in support of the Employee Free Choice Act," Vale said. "We're confident that major labor law reform is going to pass in 2009."