It started with a tweet.
Though the SEIU and the Chamber of Commerce are the thorniest of political foes -- and their heated opposition on the Employee Free Choice Act goes back many months if not years -- the most recent flare-up, which led to a public protest outside the business group's headquarters on Monday, can be traced to a Twitter account.
On February 8, 2009, SEIU President Andy Stern posted his frustration with Chamber chief Tom Donohue's unwillingness to debate him on EFCA, following a private encounter between the two.
Why won't Tom Donahe [sic] debate me on employee free choice #EFCAfail
4:10 PM Feb 8th from mobile web
It was a small and rather innocuous volley, but an interesting footnote in one of the year's most fiercely pitched legislative debates. It culminated with Stern comparing the Chamber to a "pit bull" in a "pack of attack dogs against workers" during Monday's protest.
Surprisingly, it was Stern who ratcheted up the pressure after his tweet. During the subsequent week, the SEIU sent letters to seven industry groups opposed to EFCA asking them to engage workers in a conversation on the bill. The Chamber received one of the letters. On February 20, Stern went public, challenging Donohue to debate the legislation during an interview with the Plum Line's Greg Sargent:
"He's never said Yes, never said No," Stern said, adding that the anti-Employee Free Choice forces were hiding behind "front groups" and should "come out of the shadows."
The Chamber responded, posting a reply that welcomed the discussion and arguing that it had "been debating the merits of this issue for months, years even."
"We are quite clear on our position -- this is a bad idea for workers, for business, and for the economy," read the post.
Around that time, a bit of kindling was added to the fire. The Center for Responsive Politics put out a report showing that the Chamber of Commerce had spent more on lobbying in 2008 than all labor unions combined and that business PACs had spent five times as much as labor unions on the election. On March 5, the SEIU released its in-house analysis of these lobbying efforts, accusing the Chamber and others for carrying water for a select few companies opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act.
The union also announced its designs for Monday's action outside the Chamber headquarters. The gathering of labor leaders and progressive religious and community officials, protesting the business group's lobbying efforts against labor priorities, marked a crest in an exchange that has been simmering for weeks. Certainly it is one of the more overt moves in a political chess match that has been waged largely behind the scenes. And where did Stern bring the focus of the event: back to his tweet.
"They might be a big and mighty lobbying machine but guess what, when I asked their top officer Tom Donohue to debate me on Employee Free Choice, he declined," said the SEIU leader. "It's not surprising they don't want to face us in public... how could they defend what they're doing?"