Running a presidential campaign requires a certain amount of boiling down of ideas into easy sound bites and slogans. The opposition party candidate, in particular, must successfully define himself as the candidate of “change,” possessed of an ability to alter the nation’s course away from the “failed policies of the past.” The Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is no exception. He knows he’s got to win over skeptics with simple messages, but at the same time offer specific proposals for true believers. And as much as any bloc in his party can be, labor leaders and activists are true believers.
Senator Obama has made clear his desire to advance the interests of organized labor. “Let’s allow our unions and their organizers to lift up this country’s middle class,” he has stated on the campaign trail. He no doubt will say something to that effect when he accepts his party’s nomination in Denver this week. Yet such rhetoric is at best superficially inspiring. As unions now represent only 7.5 percent of the nation’s private-sector labor force, most of the nation’s middle class clearly don’t belong to a union. And many of the workers who do belong, especially those in service industries, aren’t middle class. No matter – if Obama is elected as this nation’s next president, he can be counted on to make “restoring the middle class” and “fighting for working families” stump-speech applause lines.
Priority number one would be to persuade Congress to enact “card-check” legislation, formally known as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). A card check is a process, both longstanding and legal in the U.S., in which union organizers attempt to secure signatures among affected employees at a targeted work site who indicate a desire to join. If organizers obtain a simple majority, the employer either can accept or refuse to recognize that union as the employees’ sole collective bargaining agent. Typically, the employer won’t, which is why a card check typically serves as a prelude to a secret-ballot election. EFCA, however, would force an employer to recognize as binding the results of a successful card check, effectively ending the ballot as the primary means of worker choice of representation. As Union Corruption Update has documented, unions are not above using aggressive persuasion and even threats to get holdout workers to sign. With EFCA in place, they would have every incentive to step up such tactics.
Unions and their respective federations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, are pulling out the stops to make EFCA the law of the land. Last year, the bill passed the House, only to fall nine votes short of the 60 necessary to break a Senate filibuster. Obama has made clear his support. In a speech before the AFL-CIO in Philadelphia this past April 2, the junior Senator from Illinois stated:
We’re ready to play offense for organized labor. It’s time we had a president who didn’t choke saying the word ‘union.’ A president who strengthens our unions by letting them do what they do best: organize our workers. I will make it the law of the land when I’m president of the United States.
Obama might well have proposed changing the name of the Department of Labor to the “Department of Organized Labor.” The AFL-CIO, which belatedly endorsed Obama in June, is holding nothing back, announcing in July its “ramped-up campaign” to get their man elected. The Washington, D.C.-based labor federation is mailing pro-Obama campaign literature out to more than 600,000 union households in the battleground states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It also is conducting a “massive campaign” among 13 million union household voters highlighting Obama’s support for the card check bill. Unions have $300 million to spend on this election, and they want a return on their investment.
Obama’s opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., opposes the Employee Free Choice Act, arguing it would deny workers their democratic rights. The bill, he says, is “a poorly disguised attempt by the labor unions to swell their ranks at the expense of workers’ rights and employers.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce likewise has launched its Workforce Freedom Initiative to oppose the measure. More unexpectedly, former Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., has weighed in against the bill. In a guest editorial appearing in the August 8 edition of the Wall Street Journal, McGovern wrote:
To my friends supporting EFCA, I say this: We cannot be a party that strips working Americans of the right to a secret-ballot election. We are the party that has always defended the rights of the working class. To fail to ensure the right to vote free of intimidation and coercion from all sides would be a betrayal of what we have always championed….While it is never pleasant to stand against one’s party or one’s friends, there are times when such actions are necessary – as with my early and lonely opposition to the Vietnam War. I hope some of my friends in Congress will re-evaluate their support for this legislation.
As an elder statesman of his party, such words ought to carry weight. But given Obama’s enormous IOUs to the unions, he’s not going to utter them.
Not every union has supported Obama during this presidential campaign. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), each an AFL-CIO affiliate, vigorously backed Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. And an Ohio council of the Service Employees International Union gave heavily to a fund managed by supporters of former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., despite the parent organization’s endorsement of Obama in February. But they know this is the time to close ranks. If Obama were to become president and Democrats were to gain several Senate seats, a card-check law will be all but a done deal. And that merely would be the beginning of a blitz of union-backed legislation. University of Maryland economist John Lott thinks Obama is the most pro-union presidential candidate his party has nominated in a long time. “Even Bill Clinton wasn’t near this strongly in the unions’ pocket, so to speak, as you have with Barack Obama,” he said. We soon may find out how deep this pocket will be. (National Review Online, 2/22/07; wcbstv.com, 6/26/08; Wall Street Journal, 8/8/08; Washington Times, 8/11/08).