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Abandoning EFCA Is Obama's Political Suicide: Lessons From Three Presidents on Workers' Rights

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Whatever happened to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)? Is it dead?

I remember sitting in a meeting last May with Senate staff who said that after Al Franken was sworn in, EFCA would be an eight-week fight and then a vote in the Senate. It has been nearly eight months and there still has been no vote, not even in committee.

What happened? Why does the bill now appear to be all but forgotten despite the massive effort of the labor movement, the blogosphere and progressive allies to push it against incredible odds?

All that effort seems to have gone to waste because the Obama administration has hardly lifted a finger on behalf of the 30,000 workers who are fired every year for trying to join a union. Obama has never given a national address on the need to reform labor regulations as he has on education reform, financial reform, infrastructure improvement, small business assistance, or a variety of other subjects.

At first, I thought, surely Obama must have made a few speeches about EFCA. Maybe I had missed something since I don't keep a TV in my office as many DC political operatives do. So, I called around to the communications departments of several labor organizations throughout DC. They all responded similarly: the administration has neglected labor. Every now and then, Obama gets asked by a reporter or town hall questioner about it and he mumbles under his breath that he supports the EFCA. He has given no major speeches on the subject of restoring workers' rights in this country.

The last time Obama mentioned the EFCA as part of prepared remarks was nearly four months ago at a Labor Day picnic in Ohio in front of 20,000 union members. Then, he only dedicated a measly two sentences on EFCA. It seemed he only did it because not mentioning the EFCA in front of 20,000 union members could get ugly (like, think Sarah Palin giving a speech at a Planned Parenthood convention ugly).

In fact, some labor officials have speculated the administration probably only mentioned EFCA to keep labor from attacking the administration over a weak health care reform bill. As Sam Stein recently quoted one labor official on health care reform:

"So union leadership is being squeezed from the bottom by members who don't want a shitty bill and from the top by Rahm holding the [Employee Free Choice Act] over their heads." 

Obama has considered this issue too political risky, despite the fact labor law reform would expand the base by making more people member of unions, whose members voted 60-40 for Obama. For this reason, The Chamber of Commerce made it clear that defeating the EFCA was more important to them than defeating climate change and health care reform put together. They will launch a massive campaign, spending millions of dollars campaigning against it in the hopes of keeping a few conservative Democrats on board.

If the president had just gotten up in front of the nation and argued for it in a prime-time addresses, we could have passed it by now. Tell me which teabagger doesn't hate his boss for, for example, for being fired unfairly from his job on trumped-up reasons? President Obama could have won wide support for the EFCA had he just gotten up and campaigned for it.

Instead, he kept mum about workers' rights, and, as history shows, presidents who have keep silent on workers' rights have often caused their own political suicides. Sure, abandoning workers' rights won't lose the votes of workers in and of itself, but standing up for workers' rights has been the saving grace of presidents who have blundered and gone astray from their base.

Harry Truman was saddled with an economy with massive inflation, declining wages and staggering unemployment as a result of recovering from a transition from a war-time economy. There were over 5,000 strikes in 1946 alone (the greatest number in our history) of workers fed up with the conditions and lack of meaningful employment. Truman, much like Obama, inherited an economic mess that he was unable to control, and, as a result, Republicans gained 55 seats in the House in 1946.

Truman looked as if he were certain to lose re-election in 1948. He had a 36 percent approval rating. His own party tried to dump him with FDR's son, James, attempting to persuade Eisenhower to run on the Democratic Platform. Unsure of whether Truman could win, the Democratic Party splintered. Strom Thurmond, upset over Truman's call for civil rights, led away the southern base, running as a third-party candidate on the Dixiecrat platform. Henry Wallace, FDR's previous vice president, led away the left wing of the party on the Progressive Party ticket.

Meanwhile, Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York and the nation's most popular politician, was running on the Republican Party ticket. Public opinion polling at the time showed that Dewey was going to beat Truman in a landslide. Dewey's victory against Truman with a divided party was seen as so imminent that several newspaper printed headlines saying, "Dewey Defeats Truman." Truman's own wife did not think he could win re-election. Truman knew he could because he had stood by workers in a big way.

The previous year Truman had vetoed the notoriously anti-labor Taft-Hartly Act, which made it tougher for Americans workers to join a union than it is for workers in most of the third world. Truman's veto was ultimately unsuccessful, with Congress overriding it.

Truman didn't give up his fight against Taft-Hartley. He dug in his heels and went around the country in 1948 on a 22,000-mile whistle-stop train tour, campaigning against big corporations that wanted to strip workers of their rights as part of his broader Fair Deal program. Workers remembered what a fighter Truman was from his fight against Taft-Hartley and stuck by him, delivering an unexpected Electoral College landslide, with Truman winning 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189.

Truman never was successful in repealing Taft- Hartley. However, it was a battle worth losing because, in the process, he won the larger war as being a champion of the working class.

However, two Democratic presidents, both saddled with similarly bad economies, didn't learn the lesson of Truman that advocating vigorously for workers' rights was a path to political victory, and they suffered staggering defeats.

In the late 1970s, catastrophic plant closing waves began to occur, inflation was running wild, oil embargoes occurred and there were gigantic gas lines as it appeared America was headed towards economic apocalypse. Jimmy Carter had previously pledged to sign a bill allowing construction workers to more easily picket works sites without fear of getting heavily fined. However, he instructed his own Georgia delegation to keep it from passing, taking him off the hook from ever having to sign it! Then, the House passed a bill making it easier for workers to join unions without fear of being fired, only to die in an anti-labor Senate filibuster. Jimmy Carter likewise didn't lift a finger to stand up publicly for workers' rights. This contributed to a larger view of Carter as a president who was out of touch with basic issues and ineffective as president. Had he made a passionate stand for workers' rights, perhaps he could have saved himself as the similarly somewhat hapless Truman did.

As longtime United Electrical Workers (UE) Political Action Director Chris Townsend recalls of his experience in the battle:

The defeat was devastating. The hapless Carter was driven out of office in a rout, Reagan blew in, with some official union support but also with too much rank-and-file support. Carter could not be defended by the unions, so many members went over to Reagan.

Clinton came to office, like Carter and Truman, with an economic mess on his hands. Once again, with the election of Clinton and a Democratic Congress after 12 years of Republican rule, the door for labor law reform was opened a little more. In 1994, the "strikers' rights" bill was introduced, that would have banned permanent scabs that replace striking workers in strikes. While it passed the House, the Clinton administration wouldn't lift a finger to push it along, and in the end it died, unable to reach the magic 60 votes needed in the Senate.

In 1994, Democrats were subsequently swept out of both houses of Congress in one of the biggest political routs in history. While Clinton had blundered on both NAFTA and health care, above else, he had failed to save himself by defining himself as a workers' champion by vigorously advocating for workers' rights as Truman had. Truman likewise had blundered and tilted to the right on several issues, even faced a left-wing challenge from former Vice President Wallace. He was able to save his presidency by sticking with working people, who, in turn, stuck by him.

Clinton was forced to go along with the Republican agenda for the rest of his career as he was saddled with a Republican Congress. He threw millions of children into poverty with the passage of so called Welfare Reform, overseeing the biggest monopolization of the media with the Telecommunications Act and passing the largest financial deregulation in this country's history, which led to the crisis we are in today.

This brings us to our current situation. The President's approval ratings are dropping dramatically as a result of the economic mess we are in, the making of which is not his fault. This administration has treaded tepidly in denouncing conservative ideology and advocating for an economy based on the needs of working people and not fat cat CEOs. They have failed to advocate passionately for workers' issues, whether against the bailout of Wall Street, unfair trade laws or on matters such as restoring workers' rights through the EFCA.

It's true we might not win the fight over the EFCA. The Chamber of Commerce will pull all the stops in order to knock off a few Southern Democrats on this bill. They will find a village in Kenya to come out and claim Obama was born there. They will secretly fund the nasty personal attacks against Obama in addition to the hundreds of millions they will pump into killing the bill outright.

We might lose the fight over the EFCA because of the power of big corporations to perversely influence the debate. However, it's a fight on which we must persevere.

As Truman's example shows, even if we don't win at first, we can win over the long term. Obama's popularity will soar and he will be endeared to the working class of this nation. In his State of the Union speech next month, Obama needs to go before Congress and advocate vigorously for Employee Free Choice. Not just a giveaway sentence or two in favor of it, but a full scale declaration of war against bosses who illegally fire their workers for expressing their democratic right to join a union.

If he does this, the working class of this country - union members and teenagers alike - will see him as a hero willing to fight for the working class against special interests.

The biggest problem that the Democratic Party faces now, after going along with the Wall Street bailout, is that they are seen as a party of special interests. A recent Wall Street Journal poll showed that more Americans have a more favorable view of the Tea Party Movement  than both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Obama could make the Democratic Party the workers' party once again. By advocating forcefully for workers' rights and against the unlimited ability of big corporation to push their workers around, Obama could win back over the mass of people disaffected with the Democratic Party. We might very well lose this fight, but over the long run, we will have won the war to bring the working class over to our side.

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