04/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

AFL-CIO May Work Against Specter In Republican Primary

One of the highest-ranking political operatives in the labor movement offered a none-too-subtle electoral threat to Sen. Arlen Specter on Wednesday, saying that the Pennsylvania Republican's opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act could come back to bite him in his upcoming primary.

"Certainly for us, any candidate will be judged by where they come down on this issue," said Karen Ackerman, political director for ALF-CIO. "With Working America we now have several hundred thousand registered Republicans as union members. So we have a lot of people with whom we communicate who can vote in the Republican primary. So I think we will have to see how this develops. We want to be able to convince Sen. Specter that he is ill advised if he thinks it is in his interest to go with the Chamber [of Commerce] on the Employee Free Choice Act. It is not good for him politically and it is certainly not good for the citizens of Pennsylvania."

The remarks by Ackerman represent the first wave of pushback after Specter announced on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon that he would not support the union-backed legislation. And it was a hard pushback at that. Ackerman, who has been a behind-the-scenes operative on this issue up till this point, lambasted the Pennsylvania Republican for opposing a measure that he supported in '07 and cosponsored in '03. And she didn't shy away from suggesting that political motivations were at play.

"I think it is no accident that he is in a very difficult position with his being challenged once again, probably, by [Pat] Toomey," she said. "You probably saw the Quinnipiac poll this morning that shows him 14 points down, head-to-head against Toomey. Sen. Specter is in a very difficult position for his primary... It is very interesting to us that he has supported the Employee Free Choice Act in past years and all the sudden he doesn't support the bill as it is."

Saying that Specter's proclamation came as a "surprise" to her and other national labor officials, Ackerman did not consider his vote on EFCA entirely lost. Nor, for that matter, did she label it as absolutely vital to obtain.

"First of all we are in discussions with other Republicans," she said. "We never thought that Specter would be the only Republican we could talk to. We have a lot of union members in other states who are communicating with their Senators as well, both Democrats and Republicans to shore up support of this."

Going forward, the AFL-CIO will be flooding Specter's office with calls, letters, and delegations, urging him to reconsider his position. The union also will be stepping up its lobbying effort in favor of the legislation. One individual who could prove instrumental in the cause is President Barack Obama, who, reports say, is privately content with the notion that EFCA is now off the legislative table.

Asked if she would like more public encouragement from the president, who has kept his backing confined largely to short but supportive statements, Ackerman responded: "The bill was just introduced last week... We have a ways to go on this. Of course there can always be more support. We want every elected House and Senate member as well as the White House to be very outspoken. We feel we are in a very good place. For the first time we do have the support of the White House and the leadership in the House and Senate."

Questioned about an Employee Free Choice compromise -- which Specter hinted he might support -- Ackerman dismissed the only idea that has been floated publicly and insisted on her preference for the current bill. But she didn't necessarily close the door on that option.

"The Lanny Davis compromise contains no possibility of majority sign up. The employer always makes the decision on a secret ballot election," she replied. "The second thing is there is no binding arbitration and the third thing is there are increased penalties on unions."

"We have given a lot of thought to this bill and a lot of thought in terms of how to fix a broken system to give workers a fair shot," she said. "We recognize that there is going to be a lot of discussion on the House and Senate floor, particularly on the Senate floor and we are prepared to engage in this discussion. We are not talking about compromise at this point. We are going full steam ahead in terms of convincing Senators that this is the right bill. And yet we recognize that we have several months to go on this."