03/04/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Unions Hold Firm on Employee Free Choice Act, Buoyed by Tough Ads, White House Support

Despite a conservative-led spin campaign to undermine the Employee Free Choice Act with phony claims that Democrats will weaken the bill, this past week saw a series of pro-union developments -- from the airwaves to the White House -- that strengthened organized labor for the bruising legislative battle ahead.

President Obama at a Friday event issued pro-labor executive orders and launched a task-force on middle class families headed by Vice President Joe Biden, while underscoring the importance of unions to a thriving economy: "You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor union."

Now unions, and their progressive allies, have toughened their resolve to hold firm on the majority sign-up provision attacked by corporate front groups in smear ads, which call it a "card check" that would take away the secret ballot. One union strategist told me, "Obama clearly stands with workers and unions, and he understands they're needed for repairing the middle class and the economy -- and The Employee Free Choice Act does that, so there's no reason to compromise."

And the obstructionist tactics of Hoover-like Republicans over the stimulus package and an aggressive new ad campaign launched Sunday against the lies about the Employee Free Choice Act have clearly boosted the union cause. They've illustrated the futility of making so-called "compromises" with Republicans determined to sabotage Obama's economic agenda and pander to its Limbaugh-loving base.

And the new pro-union ads, which you can view here, are the opening salvo of a pushback against anti-union conservatives in the battle for elite and public opinion. Polls show that 78 percent of the public already favoring the Employee Free Choice Act's provisions. Now the lies against the act are being confronted head-on:

Most critically, President Obama not only signed three executive orders reversing Bush administration anti-worker policies, but gave a ringing endorsement of the importance of unions. As Forbes, of all places, reported this week, "Obama Seeks to Improve State of Unions: President makes clear that he will be pro-labor and right away." As Forbes summed up:

It's no suprise the America's new president, Barack Obama, is pro-labor; promises to help workers were part of his campaign and his party has traditionally catered to them. What is a surprise was the forceful statements in support of unions he made on Friday, in the opening days of his term and against a backdrop of economic malaise that might have justified some coddling of business at least for a while.

"I believe we have to reverse many of the policies toward organized labor that we have seen over the past eight years, policies with which I have sharply disagreed," Obama told a gathering at the White House. "Labor is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution," he said to loud applause from an audience that included representatives of labor unions and business groups.

"Obama's actions are a significant thing to take place in the earliest days of the adminstration," said Bruce S. Raynor, general president of the labor group Unite Here. "This shows this will be a proworker administration that wants to affirm workers' rights to join unions and be represented by unions and have those organizations play a significant role in public policy under the news president."

The Boston Globe, in a story headlined, "A Union-Friendly White House," reported:

A day after handing labor unions a major victory by signing an equal-pay law, President Obama today [Friday, Jan. 30th] issued a series of executive orders that he said should "level the playing field" for labor against management.

The orders, which union officials say will undo Bush administration policies that favored employers, will:

-- Require federal contractors to offer jobs to current workers when contracts change.
-- Reverse a Bush order requiring federal contractors to post notices that workers can limit financial support of unions.
-- Prevent federal contractors from being reimbursed for expenses meant to influence workers deciding whether to form a union.

It then quoted the pro-union soundbites from Obama, and then went on to give the final say to John Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO:

"I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem. To me, it's part of the solution," Obama said to applause as he signed the orders at a launch of a task force on the middle class, where its chairman, Vice President Biden, explicitly welcomed labor leaders back to the White House.

"Today's actions show that the Obama White House is the working families' White House," AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said in a statement.

"It couldn't come at a better time. It's flabbergasting, in the midst of a painful recession, to see Exxon Mobil's $45.2 billion record profit, million dollar Wall Street bonuses, and more corporate jets for the bailout recipients as they rail against workers' rights," Sweeney added.

"The Task Force on Middle Class Working Families and the Executive Orders are the first step in a long road to restore balance between workers and corporations. As the weeks and months continue, we thank God that we have a president, vice president, and Congress who are determined to fix our economy so that it works for everyone."

Two of the most experienced pro-labor pundits, Harold Meyerson and Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect (full disclosure: they've edited some of my past articles for the magazine), amplified the importance of Obama's actions and comments. Writing on the Prospect's website, Meyerson commented:

President Obama's unveiling today of his administration's Task Force on Middle Class Working Families is the most unambiguous statement yet from the president of his support for unions. Surrounded by union leaders from both the AFL-CIO and Change To Win (which generated the idea for the task force some months ago) and by Vice-President Biden, who will chair the task force, Obama delivered comments were even more emphatic than his official actions.

Meyerson singled out the statement by Obama that a strong middle class required "a strong labor union," then went on to observe: "But for a few stray remarks from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, that's the strongest endorsement of the case for unions that an American president has ever made."

Kuttner, in a front-page column in The Huffington Post called "President Obama Wants You to Join the Union", not only pointed to the historical significance of the Obama administration's actions but also observed how the politically tone-deaf actions of GOP leaders and Wall Street CEOs are shifting the political landscape:

Labor activists have also been worried about whether Obama will keep his pledge not just to sign the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) guaranteeing the right to join a union, but to work hard on its behalf with legislators, especially in the Senate. Since the election, the US Chamber of Commerce and allied anti-union business organizations have mounted a furious publicity and lobbying offensive with one message: Mr. President, you don't need this bruising fight right now.

But the Chamber's allies in the Republican House Caucus have beautifully undercut that logic. The Chamber's premise was that EFCA would be highly divisive, at a time then the new president was seeking unity. With the wall-to-wall Republican stonewalling on the Obama recovery package, that premise is up in smoke. And the Chamber's other allies, on Wall Street, have also done a service by inviting some salutary class warfare. Obama responded last week, calling Wall Street bonuses in the face of government bailouts "shameful," and seems to genuinely view the growth of unions as a necessary counterweight....

If government can just use its influence to make sure employers stay neutral, it will be a new day for the labor movement--and for American progressivism.

Given the mounting evidence of the need for the Employee Free Choice Act and growing political support for unions, it's surprising that even a few well-respected progressive journalists, including The Washington Monthly's T.A. Frank and one of my editors at the magazine, have needlessly started to echo the view that the majority sign-up provision could be jettisoned with little damage to the legislation -- assuming that it had tougher penalties on employers. (Note: Frank will be debating the merits and prospects for the legislation, and the future of unions under an Obama administration, with a more left-wing proponent of unions, David Moberg of In These Times, on the Web radio show I co-host this Thursday at 5:30 p.m.).

But after years of NLRB inaction to protect workers, even under Democratic presidents, tougher penalties alone won't give workers a level playing field.

But as he explained in an interview with me, even Frank doesn't personally favor weakening that majority sign-up provision. He just believes it's not worth the spending of the Obama's administration political capital on and it could be safely compromised without undermining workers' rights, a view I don't share given the importance of the bill to a thriving economy and union organizing. Yet he also doesn't think it's a wise strategy for progressives to start compromising on the bill now. But he admitted to me, "I would be delighted if `card check' passed. If all I cared about was labor policy, I'd be an idiot to float the meme that I did. [He ranks universal health care a higher priority. ] But if I wrote something that scuttled the legislation, or set back the union movement 20 years, I would definitely feel bad."

His realpolitik approach to majority sign-up, though, doesn't square, in my view, with the more hopeful political reality facing unions in a tanking economy as they're backed by a pro-labor President. The strong pro-union stances by the Obama administration, the Republicans' self-destructive opposition to the Obama stimulus plan and tough new advertising attacks exposing the lies about the bill have all strengthened the unions' political position and made such compromises unnecessary.

Moreover, the right-wing and GOP in this country simply can't be trusted to deal with the Obama administration in good faith on this or other issues. Their leaders would clearly prefer to see Obama fail rather than protect workers' jobs or salvage the economy, and they're already moving on to attack another clause of the Free Choice Act requiring arbitration if an employer thwarts good-faith bargaining for a contract. But as Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake points out in her comment on the Frank article, which sympathetically chronicles the struggle of Rite Aid warehouse workers to form a union, there's no point in compromising with Republicans on this majority sign-up issue, especially when they've built their case against it on lies. She writes caustically, quoting Frank:

Just give up "card check" in order to appease the bill's opponents, and everything will be hunky dory:

"Perhaps the bill's proponents in Congress intend to stand firm in their defense of the card check provision of EFCA. But if they strategically retreat, at just the right moment, like a matador lifting his red cape, will liberals accuse Democrats of selling out labor? Or will they realize that, with or without card check, EFCA will still accomplish what's most needed--finally, at long last, restoring the rights of workers who seek to organize?"

The article ends in a rallying cry for bipartisan compromise that presumes that the bill's opponents mean what they say and will just fold up their tents and go home if majority sign-up is excised.

When pigs fly.

Indeed, the Employee Free Choice Act is actually a modest bill that does little to limit the overwhelming power of employers over workers. In the view of many, such as David Moberg of In These Times (in an article now on the stands, but not yet online), the legislation doesn't go nearly far enough to remedy the imbalance in the workplace. As he observes:

No single remedy will fix all that ails America, but no strategy
is likely to work if it does not give working people more power
over their jobs. The great 30-year shift in wealth, power and
public priorities coincided with--and was in large part caused
by--the decline of a labor movement under assault from corporations
and right-wing ideologues.

Labor's renaissance could ensure that workers share in the growth
of their productivity and provide the stimulus of consumer demand
that the economy will need for a sustained recovery. And a growing
and energized labor movement can also begin to deliver on the New
Deal's long-term promise of greater democracy at work, which will
be essential for creating high-performance, socially sustainable
workplaces in a new economy.

All this means that one of this year's most critical political
battles will be the fight over legislation that would make it
easier for workers to form unions--the Employee Free Choice Act
(EFCA), which passed the House but was filibustered in the Senate
in 2007...

It is not a panacea, but a modest reform, rooted in the labor laws
inherited from the New Deal that responds to the growing failures
of those could not only help workers who join unions but all working people, the economy and the future of progressive politics.

That's truly what is at stake in the Employee Free Choice Act, and in the words of yesterday's Superbowl rock and roll champ, Bruce Springsteen, the motto for union activists and progressives needs to be "No retreat, no surrender":