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Can Labor Revive the American Dream? | The Nation

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Can Labor Revive the American Dream?

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The business community's massive campaign this past fall to defeat candidates who supported Employee Free Choice focused on the misbegotten claim that the legislation would take away workers' right to choose a union by secret ballot election. Actually, labor law allows either a secret ballot or majority sign-up, at the discretion of the employer; the bill would simply put that choice in the hands of the workers. Still, the Chamber, betting on its trumped-up prodemocracy message, dumped millions of dollars on ads with this message in nine battleground states, some using a Sopranos actor to play the union tough who just might kneecap you if you vote no. Interestingly, the gambit failed. Voters in these states told pollsters that secret ballot in union elections ranked last on their list of concerns; many more said they were troubled by the excessive power of big corporations than said they were troubled by the power of big labor.

About the Author

Esther Kaplan
Esther Kaplan is editor of the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, and author of With God on Their Side: George...

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Since the election, the business community has savvily retooled its campaign. In a November 21 letter to Congress, the Chamber wrote that passage of the bill "would have a particularly devastating impact on small employers who, as the primary source for new jobs, would be counted on to reverse the current economic downturn." The bill, the letter went on, "is an awful idea in good economic times and a catastrophic idea in the difficult economic times now upon us." Days later, the Chamber presented new research claiming that unionization is a drag on GDP--an assertion that Galbraith and other economists find laughable. And the Chamber used negotiations over the auto bailout to claim that unionization bankrupted the industry. In fact, labor makes up a tiny portion of a car's production cost, but in a tense economic environment with spiking unemployment, such talking points easily gained traction in the media.

If the rhetoric doesn't work, the business lobby is ready to threaten retaliation. "They'll promise to dump money to oppose supporters of the bill in the next election," says Mary Beth Maxwell, director of the pro-union American Rights at Work. The Chamber of Commerce has been aggressively educating its local chapters so that business leaders can buttonhole senators in their home districts. When Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat who counts Wal-Mart among her top donors, met with the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce in late November, she tried to talk about healthcare and the economy, but the businessmen in the room hammered her on Employee Free Choice. A Rove disciple, former US Attorney Tim Griffin, publicly mulled over a run against her if she repeats her 2007 yes vote. Weeks later, the senator hedged her bets, saying the reform is perhaps "not necessary." "We have the most ideological business community in the world," says economist Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, "and they enforce it."

According to the AFL-CIO's Samuels, "We're seeing heavy pressure from the retail world, the chain drugstores, Wal-Mart, the retail federation, the nonunion building contractors and some of the low-wage employers like Tyson's, the ones who have spent twenty years trying to create a business climate that isn't friendly toward unions, and from the several-billion-dollar-industry of antiunion consultants." Wal-Mart, he says, is at the top of that list. "They're flying their forces into DC already." Wal-Mart sent a shot across the bow in October, when the company shuttered an auto shop in Quebec within days of the workers there voting to organize. "It will be very tight in the Senate," says one Democratic Congressional aide. "We're not kidding ourselves."

One of the many ironies here is that the Employee Free Choice Act already has majority support--the bill just needs to get a vote on the Senate floor. In 2007 the bill passed overwhelmingly in the House and garnered fifty-one votes in the Senate, but when Democrats failed to achieve a filibuster-proof majority, the business press was quick to assert that this put "a question mark" over labor law reform. The real question, says SEIU president Stern, is, "Are we willing to say if we can't get sixty votes we won't fight? We will lose as progressives if we concede that idea." Other union leaders worry privately that the bill can't be won intact, that the increased penalties for worker intimidation might face better odds on their own. Representative George Miller, chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, insists that it can. "We had the same opposition last year [2007], and the members understand the issue pretty clearly," he says. "You're either going to give the middle class the tools so they can hold on to their economic livelihood or you're not. It's a very important priority for me."

SEIU has committed 50 percent of its staff to a field campaign in support of Employee Free Choice and national healthcare and expects each local to commit 30 percent of its staff as well. Secretary-treasurer Anna Burger says the union will be in fourteen states with an ambitious "field, phone, air, town-hall-meeting press strategy. We're going to tie that to a Hill strategy as well so they never lose sight of us, and we never lose sight of them, until we get this done. And if they don't vote with us, they need to be clear about what's going to happen to them. People up for re-election should experience some of our ground operation now." Kenneth Zinn says the AFL-CIO will be active in eighteen states, continuing the record-breaking ground operation it put in place for the 2008 election. It is also raising $30 million for a media campaign. Altogether, says Bob Callahan of Change to Win, the two labor federations will have several thousand people on the ground full time to fight for the bill. "Labor has done an incredible job of staying focused on this as a top priority," says Mary Beth Maxwell, "and allies have really stepped up and realized this is more than just labor's fight."

As UC Santa Barbara labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein points out, the New Deal was not just a series of reforms that stabilized banking or stimulated the economy. "Those reforms," he says, "were backstopped by the organization of the working class, and those reforms continued for two generations." Any Obama-era reforms, he adds, "can and will dissipate" unless unions form an institutional bulwark against retreat.

Fred Feinstein, a former counsel to the NLRB during the Clinton years, was a Congressional aide in the late '70s, the last time Democrats, in control on Capitol Hill, made a full-court press to pass labor law reform. They failed to achieve cloture in the Senate by a single vote. Then, unions were more than twice their current size and less allied with progressive causes, and so it was easier to frame the battle as a parochial fight between big labor and big business. "Labor's decline helps recast that dynamic," he says. "This time around it isn't about two special interests; it's about economic recovery and restoring the middle class."

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