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New Franken Ruling, Civil Rights Coalition Backing Boosts Pro-Union Bill

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Tuesday's court decision favoring Al Franken in the disputed Minnesota Senate race also serves as a boon to the ongoing fight over the Employee Free Choice Act. Despite last week's defection by Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA.) and the conventional wisdom of some Washington pundits pronouncing the bill essentially dead, the fight for the legislation by both Big Business interests and unions is very much alive.

And some of the centrist and Southern Democrats who are reported to be wavering in their support for the legislation and looking for an alternative, such as Senators Dianne Feinstein and Mark Pryor, now have to take into account a new factor in the political equation. That's the ringing endorsement of the bill scheduled for later today by the influential Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of 200 civil-rights and advocacy groups.

A press release for today's event said, "On the eve of the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., national civil rights leaders will host a press conference call Thursday, April 2, calling for passage of legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize and bargain collectively for better wages and benefits...Dr. King was assassinated helping to lead a struggle of sanitation workers to win the freedom to form a union and bargain collectively with their employer. The struggle of those workers continues today as Congress works to pass the Employee Free Choice Act to improve the lives of working men and women regardless of race, color or creed."

Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the coalition already testified on behalf of the bill in March before a Senate committee, clearly framing the right to form a union as a civil right:

Employers have made a mock of secret ballots by using tactics of delay and intimidation....Restoring fairness to the process by which workers form a union is fundamental to civil and human rights, and it's one of the most important steps we can take to rebuild our economy.

That coalition is likely to have more impact than, say, the anti-union shill "Joe the Plumber" who doesn't even know what's in the legislation he's being paid to oppose.

Besides the moral claim the civil rights community has on both Democrats and some moderate Republicans, can those Democratic Senators having second thoughts about the bill and looking towards being re-elected, really afford to alienate key Demoratic constituencies, including the labor movement, African-Americans and Hispanics -- especially when workers are seeking better wages and job protection in a recession? As Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the AFL-CIO president, said in an interview, "I don't see how you win statewide in America as a Democrat if you don't have the support of organized labor" --and that holds true for African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities who could very well take into consideration votes on workers' rights and raised living standards.

Even the cynical Washington press corps, despite often echoing businesses' bogus talking point that the bill takes away the secret ballot, are acknowledging that neither side is backing down. Even Roll Call, while swallowing whole anti-union falsehoods, was obliged to report:

Republicans are still trying to kill it. Democrats are still hoping to revive it. And forces on both sides of the debate over controversial union organizing legislation are still pressing ahead with multimillion dollar lobbying campaigns.

Following Sen. Arlen Specter's (R-Pa.) announcement last week that he will not vote to begin debate on the Employee Free Choice Act, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) launched a fresh round of talks with a handful of moderate Republicans in the chamber to keep the bill alive...

One source said that, while having Specter in the GOP fold has greatly helped the party's efforts to kill the legislation, it may not be a guarantee. If Democrat Al Franken wins his contested election against former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Republicans will need at least a handful of Democratic opponents to put it to rest once and for all.

"The only way to put to bed a proposal as bad as this is to have a bipartisan rejection," a senior GOP leadership aide said.

Helping in that cause is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is set to spend $20 million on card check this year to kill the EFCA.

But unions have their own weapons, including a massive grass-roots campaign that's also including small businessmen who see the value of decently-paid workers for their firms' long-term growth and a revived economy.

Union leaders are willing to tweak the legislation to keep all Democrats on board in the Senate.. They're also they're re-doubling their efforts with a new media campaign featuring the voices of workers, and launched Tuesday with a press conference on Capitol Hill, featuring Martin Sheen and other stars of the West Wing, along with such political leaders as Sen. Barbara Boxer and workers whose rights have been denied by the current broken labor law system..

Bradley Whitford was especially eloquent on the need for the legislation (via AFL-CIO Now blog):

We must never forget these workers. This issue boils down to a simple fact: It is a fundamental right in this country for workers to be able to join unions and to bargain collectively. Unfortunately, as these workers will tell you, this is often not the case. Without the protections provided by the Employee Free Choice Act, workers looking to join unions are subject to harassment, disinformation and dismissal because of a system that is exploited by and stacked in favor of management.

The Employee Free Choice Act puts the process of whether or not to join a union and how it is done where it belongs, in the hands of the workers. We must not allow the political process to water down this fundamental right. We must not allow lawmakers to put political expediency ahead of this right..

But the need for the legislation is felt most keenly by workers who have had to fight againt tremendous odds for the right to organize. As reported by the SEIU Blog:

One worker who told her story at [the] star-studded event on the Hill was SEIU Local 105 member Roberta Ayala, the "face" adorning the banner splashed across SEIU's building on Massachusetts Ave. Roberta is a teacher's aide at a private organization in Denver, CO and works with teenagers with severe emotional problems, as well as non-verbal autistic children.

"I had always believed a union was the fairest way to work," says Roberta, whose father and grandfather were in unions. "I believed that if we had a union, this unfair treatment wouldn't be happening. I wanted my coworkers to be treated fairly so we could be better advocates for our students," said Roberta, detailing how she and the other employees in her school repeatedly went to management with their concerns on understaffing and increasing safety and training procedures to create a better learning environment for the kids--but were ignored. So they decided to form a union:

"Eighty percent us signed cards supporting the union. But the school wouldn't recognize our decision. We filed for an election and that's when management began harassing and intimidating us. They even fired several teachers' assistants--making our staffing problems even worse.

" [...] Management continued their intimidation tactics even after we won our election. The facility experienced a 70 percent turnover in staff because of the campaign waged by management...Imagine what it does to developmentally disabled children when they lose 70 percent of their caregivers."

The current system to form a union in the workplace is slanted in favor of employers who too often use harassment and intimidation to stop unions and keep workers from getting a fair deal. "Eighteen months after our election, we finally won our first contract," says Roberta. "We finally won a voice in classroom decisions. But it shouldn't have been this hard to win improvements for our students."