While some Washington pundits have declared the Employee Free Choice Act essentially dead because Republican Senator Arlen Specter defected two weeks ago, the largest grass-roots mobilization by the labor movement and allied civil rights organizations since the election launches this weekend. Members of Congress are taking a two-week recess, but they'll be facing mounting pressure for passage of this bill in direct meetings with workers and small businessmen supporting the legislation, and through town hall meetings, vigils, community forums, call-in days, rallies and other events.
"This recess, we will not allow our leaders to forget that workers across the country are counting on them to make the economy work for everyone again," said American Rights at Work Executive Director Mary Beth Maxwell. "There is an unwavering commitment by a majority of lawmakers to restore our middle class and give workers back the freedom to bargain for a better life. Our ramped up efforts send a strong message to the rest of Congress that we can, we must, and we will pass the Employee Free Choice Act this year."
As Politico reported, even the Chamber of Commerce is starting to admit, contrary to conservative spin, the fight is far from over and one Senator's defection doesn't defeat the legislation:
Both both sides say they plan to keep up their drive, and labor has begun talking to other Republican senators that might win over.
Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, told POLITICO during an interview at the group's headquarters: "We hope to take good advantage of the recess to reconnect with our members. The other side is declaring victory, but this is just starting."
An official at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the leading business lobby, said: "The chamber is still going after this. I don't think one less vote means this is dead at all."
The AFL-CIO alone has scheduled 300 events for the two-week period, ranging from working lunches of union members and the unemployed gathering to call their legislators to roundtables of small businessmen supporting the bill to larger-scale rallies.
The union organizers are well-prepared, coordinating their actions with the help of a spread sheet outlining city-by-city, state-by-state activities across the country, including states with wavering Democrats, such as Arkansas and Nebraska. In Arkansas, for instance, they're planning nearly 30 events, including a meeting with wavering Senator Blanche Lincoln, supplemented by a rally outside his office and a host of actions across the state, ranging from local media interviews, community forums and smaller-scale actions mobilizing workers to call and write their legislators.
For instance, already this week in Arkansas (via AFL-CIO blog):
In Fort Smith, Ark., state AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Ricky Belk was among the union leaders who took part in a town hall meeting on the economy this week. He said union membership meant he and his wife could raise a family and join the middle class. Corporate dominance of the system for forming unions, he said, threatens that promise and the ability of workers to get fair wages and access to health care and pensions:
"What I had to do was work hard, play by the rules, be persistent and that I would have the opportunity to achieve the American dream. I've been very, very fortunate in that I've had a union representing me in the workplace....The economy we find ourselves in today doesn't afford that opportunity for everybody. "
Under the radar noted by the talking heads on cable chat shows, a genuine movement is building. As NAACP President Ben Jealous told reporters yesterday when the 200-organization Leadership Conference of Civil Rights announced itsr support of the legislation, "We're throwing the full support of over 100 groups behind this legislation," advocacy groups working in the field for the legislation. "When the full depth of support for the Employee Free Choice Act becomes clear, we will see this passed."
There's good reason that civil rights groups are backing this legislation so strongly, as noted in the huge advantage African-Americans in unions hold over African-Americans without union protection:
For generations, unions have provided a toehold to the middle class, helping working Americans secure health care, job stability, and an opportunity for upward mobility. This is true for Americans from every background - but especially for African Americans.
. FACT: African-American union members earn 28 percent more than their
· FACT: African-American union members are approximately 16 percent
more likely to have health insurance than nonunion workers.
· FACT: African-American union members are approximately 19 percent
more likely to have a pension than nonunion workers.
In the current economic climate, legislation like [the Employee Free Choice Act] is more important than ever to the African-American community and American workers.
As Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference, summed up what's at stake for African-Americans -- and all workers -- by quoting a civil rights and labor pioneer:
As A. Philip Randolph used to say, the two tickets for full equality for African Americans have been the voter registration card and the union card. The first card allows all Americans to choose better leaders. The second card allows all Americans to choose a better life.