After a long and bitter campaign cycle, the polls have closed, the pundits' predictions have been proven right or wrong, and the dust of the 2008 election has begun to settle. One momentous outcome from this historic election is that voters chose to elect a pro-worker president and majority in Congress.
Our new pro-worker Congress is significant in light of how big business front groups tried -- and failed -- to use the Employee Free Choice Act as a wedge issue. A top legislative priority for workers' rights advocates, the Employee Free Choice Act is opposed by powerful special interests because it would help restore balance in this economy by making it easier for workers to form unions. These groups are funded by the same corporations who refuse to pay their employees a decent salary, provide health care, and keep jobs here in the United States. Their opposition to workers standing up for themselves by organizing unions should come as no surprise.
It's important to point out the ineffectiveness of their cynical crusade against the legislation and unions in general. Groups such as the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $20 million on misleading ads in Senate battleground states. Through melodramatic TV and radio ads and outrageous newspaper columns across the country, these anti-union ideologues threw everything, including the kitchen sink, hoping something would stick. In fact, the opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act failed to affect these races, and often those candidates supporting the bill steadily rose in the polls despite massive advertising on the issue.
Not only did voters ignore these ads, they remained twice as likely to be concerned with the power of corporations than with the power of unions. For example, a survey among voters in Senate battleground states by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found that candidate support for the Employee Free Choice Act did not play a significant role in voters' decisions. Instead, issues such as the economy and corporate power were high on the electorate's minds. But the poll also revealed that 60 percent of respondents believe it is important to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, and nearly one-third (31 percent) of voters strongly believe it should be a priority for Congress.
Newly-elected Senators like Mark Udall, Jeff Merkley, and Jeanne Shaheen withstood millions of dollars in attack ads criticizing their support for the bill. They managed to not only score victories, but actually improve their polling numbers despite the negative onslaught. Why? Americans know we can't continue the status quo of stagnant wages, rampant outsourcing, reduced healthcare coverage, and high unemployment. Unions make a difference in improving not only working conditions, but wages, access to medical care and job security. Through an aggressive public education and grassroots campaign, workers' rights advocates and unions were able to remind and convince the public that policies to help more workers join unions ultimately will help save our failing economy.
Over the coming weeks and months, these new leaders will help strengthen the support that already exists for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. New leaders on Capitol Hill and in the White House will be engaged to ensure that workers' rights are a high priority when Congress reconvenes in January. President-elect Barack Obama has already signaled his strong support of the bill, proclaiming, "I've fought to pass the Employee Free Choice Act in the Senate. And I will make it the law of the land when I'm President of the United States of America." The future of the middle class that drives our economy, and of a strong labor movement that stands up for those who don't have a voice, depends on the same courage and conviction that propelled candidates to victory on November 4.
We have only seen the beginning of the fight to restore workers' rights in this country as we can expect more sound and fury from opponents of this bill. But voters have clearly spoken. In our current economic climate, the American public is hungry for measures to strengthen the middle class, and our new Congress should heed this call and make it a priority to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.
David Bonior is a former Congressman from Michigan, and is Chair of American Rights at Work, a workers' rights advocacy organization in Washington, DC.