Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Labor and the Employee Free Choice Act

It certainly feels that the Employee Free Choice Act faces an uphill battle for passage. With Democratic senators such as Blanche Lincoln coming out against it and even Dianne Feinstein expressing doubts, it's hard to see where the 60 votes comes from to break the filibuster.

Of course, the sensible policy would be to nuke the filibuster and have the Senate return to something approximating a democratic institution. Given that Harry Reid is Majority Leader, the chances of this remain low, although growing Democratic frustration is going to build pressure to change Senate rules.

The other way EFCA might pass is if Obama makes it a top priority. And while he's talked about passing the legislation, it's clearly not first on his agenda. He's kind of given short shrift to the unions ever since his election. Naming a Secretary of Labor was low on his appointment list and no representative of labor was at his introductory press conference where he announced his financial team. He then allowed Hilda Solis' nomination to languish in committee for way too long. For quite fair reasons, Afghainstan, health care, and energy are clearly higher priorities. If the question is how much political capital will Obama spend of EFCA, the answer is probably some but not too much.

When I heard that Democrats were going to push EFCA this year, I was surprised and a bit skeptical of its chances for passage. It's a great piece of legislation, but unions have hardly prepared the public for it, shown that they can pressure doubting politicians into voting for it or kicking out of office those who don't, or played a major public role in American life over the last couple of decades. Of course there are many reasons for this--globalization and outsourcing being the primary culprit. But labor's own ineffective leadership also deserves a great deal of the blame.

In order for major labor legislation to pass, labor has to be united and ready to fight. Right now they are neither. Labor has to overcome long-time anti-union bias in the United States. It's important to remember that there's really one been one period of labor dominance in the United States, 1935-47, or from the passage of the National Labor Relations Act to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. In the early 1930s, at the height of American liberalism with millions of workers desperately wanting to join a union and willing to go on strike to do so, with Franklin Roosevelt as president, and with the Republican party completely discredited, the NLRA was quite controversial, with significant resistance from both Republicans and southern Democrats. Twelve years later, much of America was ready to roll it back and did so with Taft-Hartley. Since then, while unions remained a strong aspect of American life until the 1980s, anti-union sentiment has grown. Labor, kicking out their radicals in the face of Taft-Hartley and the anticommunist atmosphere of postwar America, became increasingly reticent to organize and to strike. Focusing on benefits was great for their members and great for America, but it did not create an institution ready to fight when employees backed out of the tacit agreement made during and immediately after World War II that in exchange for those benefits and a good standard of living, unions would crack down on radicalism and become part of the employer-dominated capitalist system.

Even today, labor is having tremendously difficulty moving out of this mentality.

It's my belief that in order for EFCA to pass with a filibuster-proof majority, unions have to work toward becoming a powerful voice in American life. They see EFCA as the solution to that problem, which is fine except that unlike in the 1930s, they are viewing this as primarily a political problem with a political solution. They are treating the problem from the perspective of a deserving part of the Democratic coalition who needs to be paid back rather than demanding passage regardless of political consideration.

What are the unions to do? I think the first thing that needs to happen is reunification. Harold Meyerson reports that AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and the National Education Association are coming together in a new coalition to fight for change. That's fine, but I have to wonder what the point of Change to Win was in the first place. Led by SEIU president Andy Stern, Change to Win formed in 2005 as an alternative to the AFL-CIO that was going to put more emphasis on organizing. Sounds great, but it seems to have made virtually no difference in labor's role in American life. And now we're back to square one.

I think the unions also have to task some risks. They have to put not only their money where their mouths are, but bodies too. It's hard to believe unions will be able to create change without some mass actions. The successes of the 1930s came because millions of workers were ready and willing to put their jobs and even their lives on the line through direct action. Where is that today? Just being another player at the political table is not enough, not when you have such strong neoliberal beliefs and anti-union hostility in Congress. And that's just the Democratic party. It's a huge risk. For 60 years, all Americans have heard about unions is negative. Today, the UAW is considered to be part of the problem at GM and Chrysler. This is an absurd charge, but for another post. What would the public response be to mass union actions? At first, almost certainly negative. The right-wing media would be up in arms and the mainstream media tisk-tisking. But with a good strategy that includes a media blitz with representatives on every available show, locally-based efforts that allow locals to target individual politicians, employers, or areas of town, and an organizing effort to go along with it that gets word out to Americans what unions can do for you and how they can help save the economy, the potential is high for an effective result. Of course, you'd have to be willing to back it up by threatening political careers, but that should be part of union strategy anyway.

Political lobbying is not enough. But according to Meyerson, that's where the new coalition, possibly headed by David Bonior, is heading: "The union presidents have largely agreed to focus the federation (its name is still up in the air) on the political and lobbying operations at which the AFL-CIO has excelled." Have they really excelled at this? I don't know about that. If they can push EFCA though, I'll be a believer. But right now, their attempts at lobbying Congress are failing. Again. Something new has to come from labor to see EFCA and other necessary legislation pass and to create a pro-labor and pro-organizing atmosphere in this country. Otherwise, I see labor's decline only continuing.