THE BLOG
03/10/2009 09:34 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Democratic Senators: Mess With EFCA, Face A Primary

If you believe that a society cannot be truly democratic without a strong labor movement, and if you believe that the only way to build a fair economy is by making sure people can belong to unions, then, this is where a line must be drawn: Democratic Senators who block or undercut the Employee Free Choice Act should face well-funded primary challenges.

Today, Tom Harkin (D-IA), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and George Miller (D-CA), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, will announce that they are introducing EFCA. There is no doubt that EFCA will pass the Congress and reach the president's desk. The question, in my mind, is: what will the bill say? Will it bear any resemblance to the version Miller and Harkin are introducing? Or will it be watered down? And that's where the primary threat comes in (by the way, I will be on CNBC today at 11:30 Eastern time to discuss EFCA)

First, a bit about my view of the state of play. The math has always been pretty simple: EFCA will easily pass the House. The fight will be to get to 60 votes in the Senate. I've always suspected the conventional thinking on this was off--conventional, meaning, once Al Franken is seated, bringing the Democratic Senate caucus to 59, it would be easy to recruit one more Republican, more than likely, Arlen Specter, to support EFCA.

The problem is that there are a handful of Democratic Senators who are, at best, weak on labor, and, at best, just outright shills for corporate interests in the Congress. Here is my list: Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and Blanche Lincoln; it's not clear to me what the replacement Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet will do on the bill, nor do I entirely trust Bill Nelson or Mark Pryor (on Pryor, maybe it's a family thing: his father was one of two Democratic Senators who would not vote in the 1990s to break a filibuster on the legislation that would have banned striker replacements, dooming the bill and giving corporations even more power to intimidate workers). That's seven Senators who, in my opinion, you cannot count as passionate champions of EFCA.

Here is what should concern us. I doubt any Democratic Senator will say "I oppose EFCA". What you will hear is something along the lines, "I think unions are good but there needs to be a balance between the interests of workers and business and the following amendment makes sure there is a balance..." and, not publicly, "thank you, Chamber of Commerce, you can now write out the PAC check for my next campaign..."

The kinds of bad amendments we could easily see come in three flavors:

1. An amendment that eliminates the "card check" provision. This has been the focus of the p.r. war--the provision that allows a majority of workers to sign cards that, when verified, constitute authorization to form a union. This is pretty simple. The intense brutalization of workers who try to form a union--from threats to actual firings--is well-documented and is a central reason for the decline of labor. The legislation allows workers to choose either "card check" or the more traditional election format. The key: it's up to the workers, not the corporation.

Along comes, say, Ben Nelson (who is not an EFCA co-sponsor), with an amendment to eliminate "card check". That's going to be a key moment: who sticks with the "card check" provision and who, to use a familiar phrase, cuts and runs?

2. An amendment that eviscerates the push to reach a contract once a union is formed. Workers may vote for a union but you think that means companies, then, rush to make a deal? Heck no--companies often drag out negotiations, sometimes for years, frustrating workers who, then, become easy targets for anti-union campaigns aimed at voting out the union.

EFCA now says: if you can't reach a first contract within 90 days, either party can request mediation by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). If that doesn't push the parties after 30 days, everyone moves to binding arbitration, though the time limits can be extended by mutual agreement. So along comes, say, Mary Landrieu, with an amendment that extends that time to one year or even eliminates binding arbitration--returning more power to a corporation to repress workers' interests.

3. EFCA increases the financial penalties against companies that break the law during organizing and contract campaigns. Along comes, say, Blanche Lincoln, with an amendment that keeps the penalties low. I have to say, in my opinion, this is not the biggest point: until the penalties actually include jail time, none of this really matters to the corporate leaders because all the financial hits are just a cost-of-doing business that they just deduct from the bottom line. But, still, it's a place where a handful of Democrats could cut down EFCA's effect.

Now, if you think this is all just fanciful navel-gazing (which, actually, is a lot of fun, truth be told), just yesterday there was this, from Politico:

As Big Labor and Big Business gird for a free-for-all on the Employee Free Choice Act, the bill's fate increasingly hinges on Sens. Blanche L. Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) -- two wavering moderates who would love to dodge the controversy.
...
Despite labor's pressure for a fast, rip-off-the-Band-Aid vote, Lincoln and Landrieu are not inclined to move quickly. That could hang up the measure for months, perhaps pushing it into the midterm election year of 2010, according to people on both sides.
....
"I'm not sure that we have the votes," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
.......
Lincoln, for one, has told confidants she's in no rush -- and doesn't want to move on EFCA until after the epic battle over reform.

"Right now, my No. 1 priority is strengthening our economy and putting 90,000 jobless Arkansans back to work," Lincoln wrote in an e-mail to POLITICO. "I'll consider legislation to change union organizing rules sometime after it's introduced in the Senate and before it's brought to a vote."
....

"Sen. Landrieu is carefully reviewing the issue. She understands that it is a heated debate and wants to make an informed decision," said a Landrieu spokeswoman, adding that her boss's calendar brimmed with card check meetings this week. "Part of that process is actively meeting with interested groups on both sides. Sen. Landrieu is also reviewing the proposed bill."

That last part is critical: Landrieu reviewing the proposed bill? She is listed as a CO-SPONSOR of the bill. And that's part of the calculation: when the Democratic Senate caucus was much smaller before the last cycle, a few senators like Landrieu saw no harm in listing themselves as a co-sponsor under the theory that they could still get labor's campaign money and support, without having to vote on the bill because it had no chance of even coming up for a final passage vote.

Ok, so, now about the primary. I guess I'd start by saying that I think primaries are very good things to have--primaries are the place that a party defines its soul and direction. So, if need be, let's have the debate in a primary over these issues:

The only way for our country to recover from a collapse in wages over the past three decades is to have a strong labor movement. By every measure, union workers do better than non-union workers. Sen X, you just voted to cripple legislation that would have restored a decent standard of living for working Americans. Why do you deserve another term?

Sen. X, we have seen the greatest divide between rich and poor in generations. You voted to cripple legislation that would have brought America back to be a more fair society for all your constituents. Why do you deserve another term?

Sen. X, you call yourself a "loyal Democrat". Yet, you undermined the very legislation that would have built one of the party's key constituencies--working people who belong to unions who vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party's candidates. Why should the party put you back in office when you undercut its power?

I'd also say that if Harry Reid does not make EFCA a priority--meaning, demanding that the caucus be unified and fight as one--it might not hurt to field a primary challenge to him.

So, let the waverers beware: support EFCA, fight for it and defend it... or face the prospect of cashing in that chit for a job as a corporate lobbyist.