Thursday, November 13, 2008

Will Labor Have a Seat at the Table?

An Obama Litmus Test

“Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the ease with which the many are governed by the few.”

—David Hume

With Barack Obama and company poised to take over the White House, organized labor and business groups are paying close attention to the status of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). If enacted, the EFCA would allow workers to join a union simply by signing cards. In other words, if a majority of the employees check “yes,” the workplace automatically becomes a union shop.

As proposed, the EFCA provides employees with a dramatically simpler alternative (referred to as “card-check”) to the traditional method of union certification, a method which—with its many rules, regulations, exceptions, challenges, and other legal maneuvers—has given management an enormous “home field” advantage.

Not only do unions currently have to petition the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board), and go through all the bureaucratic rigmarole, they have to withstand formidable propaganda and disinformation campaigns waged by management, not to mention stalling tactics that can last for months or longer. Some union certification votes have been delayed, literally, for years. So much for workers having a “free choice.”

Understandably, organized labor is thrilled with the EFCA; and equally understandably, Corporate America (led by the Chamber of Commerce, which is lobbying against the measure as furiously as if it were an al-Qaeda initiative) is unnerved by it. Human Resource managers are having recurring nightmares, where they wake up screaming, envisioning 50% of America’s workers wearing union insignia and marching in Labor Day parades.

There has also been some grumbling from libertarian hold-outs who, while strongly in favor of injecting some balance into the raging capitalist juggernaut loose upon the land, balk at abandoning the secret ballot. Although the EFCA would still require a clear majority, there are fears that, without access to secret balloting, employees will be subject to intimidation or bullying.

Labor’s counter-argument: There’s scant evidence that the card-check method (which is already used voluntarily by many companies, including Eisner’s Disneyland) results in intimidation. Indeed, union votes can go either way through card-check. American workers aren’t as shy about stating their opinion as some people would like to think.

In March of 2007, by a vote of 241 to 185, the House of Representatives passed the EFCA. However, because a subsequent vote for cloture—which would have limited debate and moved the measure quickly to a vote—failed in the Senate (cloture requires 60 votes), the EFCA was left to languish. In any event, President Bush, to no one’s surprise, had already promised to veto the legislation, should it pass both houses.

Recently, there has been conjecture over the prospects of the EFCA becoming law. While everyone agrees that President Obama would undoubtedly sign the measure into law if it reached his desk, many have expressed serious doubts as to whether the bill would get that far, despite significant Democratic gains in both the House and Senate.

What’s the basis for these doubts? Simply put, not enough moderate Democrats want this thing to pass. Yes, it was these very Democrats who gave the EFCA their blessings, and yes, it was they who voted for the bill the first time around. But that was when the EFCA had a slim chance of passing and—had it passed—was guaranteed to be killed by a presidential veto.

In truth, a piece of legislation this transparently “pro-labor” is dangerous. A yes-vote could seriously damage these moderates with their constituents back home. Despite all their tough rhetoric and saber-rattling, moderate Democrats are scared shitless of something this big. They’re going to require some coaxing.

The coming months will reveal much about the Obama administration. Depending on how hard White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel pushes to get the EFCA placed on the fast-track—and, once there, how hard he pushes to get it passed—we will be able to gauge the sincerity of the administration’s labor commitment.

If Emanuel, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate leader Harry Reid treat the EFCA as an all-out legislative priority, and do everything in their power to get this landmark bill signed into law, it will mean that organized labor is finally going to have a seat at the table.

Conversely, if the EFCA is buried, or presented without fanfare, or is watered-down to the point of being unrecognizable, it will mean that, once again, the Democratic Party has betrayed organized labor.

It will mean that, once again, the Democrats have accepted labor’s sizeable political donations but failed to deliver on their promises. It will mean they’re traitors. In any event, we’re going to find out soon enough exactly where they stand.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at

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