Which Side Are You On?

Which Side Are You On?

Every Democratic elected official must answer an old but newly relevant question: are you for or against labor unions?


Legislative fights in Washington rarely break down neatly along class lines. Often, the coalitions on either side of an issue are unwieldy and eclectic, with one sector or industry battling another. The notable exception is the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would reform a broken labor elections system, making it easier (one might say possible) for workers to unionize.

On March 10 the bill was reintroduced in the House and the Senate, ushering in the final act in a six-year legislative battle that has become the most bruising and intense in Washington, one that–literally–pits Capital against Labor.

For the GOP the politics are straightforward. Woven into the DNA of the modern conservative is opposition to unions and unionism of any kind. Defeating the bill has become a kind of jobs program for right-wing hacks: no fewer than sixteen groups are raising money, mobilizing constituents, running ads and lobbying senators to kill it.

But for a Democratic Party that for several decades has awkwardly attempted to be the party of both business and labor, it’s a very difficult circle to square. “It comes at a bad time,” says a wealthy, business-friendly Democratic donor. “[Democrats] are blaming bankers, blaming lots of people, and it sounds like these people are anti-business…. A lot of us warned the guys working for Obama that [EFCA] would be a problem. They said, Don’t overreact to this–it’s a long way from becoming law, blah, blah, blah.”

In this particular fight, class solidarity–if I may use a phrase that has long since gone out of fashion–seems to trump partisan loyalties.

Obama supporter and advocate of progressive taxation Warren Buffett has come out against the legislation. And according to that wealthy Democrat I talked with, he’s not alone: “I think a lot of Democratic donors are downright pissed off,” he told me. His fellow well-heeled Democratic donors, he said, are complaining that “this is the danger of having Democrats control Congress and the White House.” The head of a large progressive nonprofit echoed the point. The act, he said, “happened to come up a few times” recently with donors. He was surprised by how intense their opposition is. “The passion of it threw me off a bit,” he added.

Part of the source of these tensions is the fact that the disgraced financial sector (which increasingly leans Democratic in its donations) has largely thrown its weight behind opposing the bill–despite the fact that these same businesses are being kept on life support by the government. A Citibank retail analyst downgraded Wal-Mart’s stock for fear that the bill would pass; the next day she hosted an “informational” conference call featuring a representative from the US Chamber of Commerce, who spent the entire call warning darkly about EFCA. (After the Huffington Post broke the news of the anti-EFCA call in mid-March, Citi hurriedly hosted a call with members of the United Food and Commercial Workers.)

“This is the biggest battle between labor and corporations in this country since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947,” the AFL-CIO’s organizing director, Stewart Acuff, told me. What makes the battle especially intense is that while both sides have attempted to shape public opinion, polls show that the issue doesn’t amount to even a blip on voters’ radar. A recent poll found majority support for a bill that would make it easier to organize, but only 12 percent of respondents said they were following the EFCA bill “very closely.”

That means victory will ultimately come not from shaping public opinion but from pressuring the handful of swing senators. Each side is ferociously organizing constituents in those senators’ states.

A few of these red state Democrats–in a kind of parody of squishy centrism–have hinted they’d like to find some legislative compromise. “This legislation is not perfect,” Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor said recently. “And while I have been supportive in the past, I will consider amendments to make it better if and when it is considered by the Senate.” Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson said he thinks that “there’ll be a major effort to modify it before it ever comes up for consideration, and I’ll have to take a look and see what it is then.” Some senators have floated compromises, such as extending the amount of time management would have to negotiate a first contract before binding arbitration.

If Senate Democrats think an amendment will give them political cover, they’re fooling themselves. Just ask big business. Speaking on the Citi conference call, Glenn Spencer of the Chamber of Commerce said, “There is no amendment you could make to this bill to make it acceptable. From top to bottom it’s a bad piece of legislation. You’d have to start with scrapping this bill.”

Labor also sees EFCA as a black and white issue and is eager to take away the middle ground. Acuff says the fundamental question is, “Are you for unions or are you against unions? If you’re against this legislation, you’re against unions. You can’t say you’re for unions if you don’t think workers should be able to form unions without fear of retaliation.”

Sometime in the next few months, every Democratic elected official is going to have to answer a very old question that in a post-meltdown world is newly resonant: Which side are you on?

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