Fighting For Free Choice

03/11/2009 11:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers

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Yesterday, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it easier for workers to form unions and diminish management's ability to intimidate and dissuade workers from unionization, was introduced in the House and Senate. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), the lead sponsor in the Senate, heralded the bill: "Today is one of those defining moments in history as we introduce legislation that puts power back into the hands of the people who are truly the backbone of this economy." His counterpart in the House, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), was equally enthusiastic. "If we want a fair and sustainable recovery from this economic crisis, we must give workers the ability to stand up for themselves and once again share in the prosperity they help to create," Miller said. Indeed, unions are a key part of bolstering the middle class. Unionized workers earn 11.3 percent ($2.26 dollars per hour) more than non-union workers with similar characteristics, and are more likely to have health care. For example, "in March 2006, 80 percent of union workers in the private sector had jobs with employer-provided health insurance, compared with only 49 percent of nonunion workers." EFCA also has the strong backing of President Obama and his Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis. Campaigning last year, Obama said it was time to "stand up to the business lobby" that has been blocking EFCA, declaring, "If a majority of workers want a union, they should get a union. It's that simple."

RIGHT-WING LOBBYING CAMPAIGN: The bill, which has been called "a power struggle among labor unions and businesses," has fueled an enormous opposition campaign led by big business. The Chamber of Commerce -- along with other anti-union allies, will spend $200 million to defeat the bill -- flew in more than 200 Chamber members to Washington yesterday to lobby Congress, in what it dubbed the "Workforce Freedom Airlift." The business leaders were praised "as the 'first Marines hitting the beach' to defeat a 'job killer' of a bill that would violate American democracy and bring further ruin on a beleaguered economy." Chamber President Thomas Donahue told the group, "You've got to go up and tell them what will happen [if the bill passes], that no one is going to add a single job in the United States." The Chamber -- which has called EFCA a "firestorm bordering on Armageddon" -- is also launching TV and print advertisements to pressure wavering legislators, and "will likely host a second round of guest advocates in April." Other business leaders are using similarly apocalyptic terms; a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said EFCA would "effectively eliminate freedom of choice and the right to a secret-ballot election." Yesterday, Citigroup downgraded its rating of Wal-Mart stock from buy to hold over "concern" about EFCA. "It's hard to view this as anything other than a reckless and overt political act on the part of a company, Citigroup, that has made stupendously bad business decisions," Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher wrote.

MEDIA EMBRACES FAR-RIGHT DISTORTIONS: Big Business' anti-union campaign has effectively influenced Hill conservatives' rhetoric. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called the bill "a threat to one of the fundamentals of democracy," while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called it "an outrageous proposal" that would "fundamentally harm America and Europeanize America." These anti-union tropes are also constantly repeated by the media. Fox News' Chris Wallace adopted the right-wing framing earlier this year, stating that "Big Labor's top priority is what's called union card check, and that would be eliminating the right to a secret ballot." Despite the fact that the "secret ballot" canard has been endlessly debunked, media outlets continue to push the misconception. On Fox News, Forbes' Mike Ozanian called EFCA a "pro-slavery bill", while his coworker John Rutledge said the bill is "a gestapo tactic." Fox's Glenn Beck likened the bill to "tyrannies and socialism." Fox has also allowed "economists" and commentators to slam EFCA on air without noting their ties to industry groups that oppose the bill. The right insists that union bosses are intimidating workers, when in fact the evidence shows that it is the employer who most often threatens and pressures workers over unionization

PROGRESSIVE SUPPORT NEEDED IN CONGRESS: The all-out assault against unions may turn some Congress members away from supporting the bill. EFCA "was introduced with 223 co-sponsors in the House and 40 in the Senate. That is less support than it attracted in the last Congress, even though Democrats now hold more seats in both chambers. In 2007, EFCA had 230 co-sponsors on its day of introduction in the House and 46 in the Senate." In fact, 11 Democratic senators who were co-sponsors in 2007 have refused to sign on to this year's version, including Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Jim Webb (D-VA), Evan Bayh (D-IN), and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). "At least six Senators who have voted to move forward with the so-called card-check proposal, including one Republican, now say they are opposed or not sure." Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) called the bill "distracting." "I have 90,000 Arkansans who need a job, that's my No. 1 priority," she said. Of course, along with low union rates, workers in her state have some of the lowest average wages in the nation. What's more, that the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that the passage of EFCA would allow more than 14,000 Arkansas workers to receive health insurance and more than 11,000 to receive pensions. Yet Harkin maintains that the bill will pass. "By the time we bring it up [for a vote], we will have 60 votes," he said yesterday, adding "that he's hoping for a vote shortly after the Easter recess." However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said yesterday that passage depends on whether "the Republicans would cooperate with us just a little bit," adding, "Otherwise, we'll have to wait until after the August recess."