Monday, March 30, 2009

5 Ways to Fight Harder For Employee Free Choice

Last week, moderate Republican Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) announced that he would reverse his position of the last six years and oppose the Employee Free Choice Act. Specter said he will even support a Republican filibuster to prevent the Senate from voting on the bill. 

Why is it even news that a Republican Senator opposes making it easier for workers to form unions? Because Specter was actually a co-sponsor of Employee Free Choice in 2003 and 2005 and the only Republican Senator to vote for cloture on the bill in 2007.

Specter's "flip flop" means Labor is still looking for one Republican to join with the 59 Democrats to prevent a filibuster this time around. (Specter was thought to be the most likely Republican defector.) Media outlets portrayed Specter's new position as the nail in the coffin of the Employee Free Choice Act. The Hill called it a "death blow" to labor's biggest legislative priority.

Oh well! Let's just forget Democrats' large majorities in both houses of Congress, our popular Democratic president, and the solid public support for Employee Free Choice. Mr. Specter doesn't like it so we better just take our toys and go home.

Hold on a second. The progressive coalition has barely even begun to fight for the EFCA. And that's our problem. The moderate Republicans that we need to persuade have not felt any real heat yet.

Here are a five things the Left should do to crank up the heat moving forward:

1. Demand leadership from President Obama. In the Senate, Obama was a co-sponsor of the EFCA. It's time for him to step up and do all he can as President to get it through Congress. He should start with a press conference or another Internet town hall meeting to discuss the legislation and dispel some of the common misinformation about EFCA. Next, he should begin a series of campaign-style rallies around the country to drive home his point and take control of the media coverage on the issue--similar to what he did pushing for the economic recovery package in February. He should, once again, wrap himself in the mandate from his election to push through a legislative priority. He should travel to Tar Heel, North Carolina, where workers finally won union representation (and wage and benefit increases) at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant after a 15-year battle with the company. Bringing Smithfield workers on the stage with him, Obama should say that the Smithfield case demonstrates the EFCA, making it easier for workers to exercise their rights to form unions. He should highlight similar stories in several places around the country.

2. Increase Labor's on-the-ground efforts and target them in a few key states. We're talking knocking on doors, local TV and radio ads, rallies, letters to editors--all that stuff. Aim for moderate Republicans and particularly vulnerable Republicans. Here are four states to think about, each with varying prospects. (Feel free add to this list in comments.)
  • Pennsylvania - Arlen Specter could at least be persuaded to vote for cloture. The guy is in a pickle. He is being challenged by a big business Republican in his upcoming primary, pulling Specter further to the right. And he just pissed of the Labor Left in a blue, union-heavy state. Specter is caught between a rock and a hard place. If it starts looking like he'll win the primary, he might want to start walking back his EFCA opposition to make things easier for him in November 2010.
  • Maine - Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are the Republican Senators here. The state doesn't have super union membership, but it's reliably blue and in the northeast, making it a fair prospect if Obama casts EFCA as an Obama vs. Limbaugh issue. The Maine ladies can keep winning as Republicans, but not if they are seen as thwarting Obama's agenda.
  • North Carolina - In this new blue state, Republican Senator Richard Burr is looking weak for 2010. He is already trailing the leading Democrat in polling for that race. Burr might be persuaded to shake things up and cast himself as a different kind of Republican. It's hard to imagine him ever supporting Employee Free Choice outright, but he could possibly "oppose it" while voting for cloture (and thereby ensuring its passage). A big Obama rally in Tar Heel with the Smithfield workers would help.
  • New Hampshire - Republican Senator Judd Gregg awkwardly rejected President Obama before. Let's see if he'll do it again on the EFCA. Again, blue state, northeast--even if it is kinda conservative compared to the rest of the region. Also, it's a small enough state that a massive ground campaign could make a big difference. 
3. Throw in some carrots with these sticks. Unions should consider floating a bargain to moderate Republicans:"Support the EFCA and, if it passes, we will not target you in your next election." They did this to some extent with Specter, but it might be tried with others.

4. Play tough with conservative Democrats. It's pretty much expected that every Democratic Senator will support the Employee Free Choice Act, but a few of them are sounding wobbly. (No, not that kind of wobbly.) The Senate Democratic leadership should whip these few into line in the normal ways. But in addition, unions should offer this warning to conservative Dems: 
"If you waver on Employee Free Choice, we will support a progressive Democrat to challenge you in the primary and/or support a third-party progressive candidate in the general election."
5. If all else fails and Republicans are going to filibuster, then let them filibuster... and filibuster and filibuster. Let the public see that 41 Republicans are willing to clog up the work of the Senate indefinitely in order to make it harder for workers to organize. If the filibuster is their only trick for the next 8 years, then let's wear it out in the first. Let the public watch Senator Cornyn read from the phonebook on the Senate floor, and let news anchors compare it to Strom Thurmond's longest-ever filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

I would like to see each of these five things before we start talking about a death blow to the EFCA. And even then, a "death blow" would only mean delaying it until 2011, when there will most likely be a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

To Ride the Wave, or To Stand Against It: That Is Obama's Question

Almost every news story you see right now is some variation on the general theme:

"People Are Pissed About the Economy." 

AIG's use of taxpayer money to reward "the best and the brightest" who bankrupted the company is just this week's outrage. Next week there will be another theft to learn about, and then another, and another.

People are pissed indeed--rightfully and righteously so. And it's not going to subside over night. We can no longer pretend that all the economic crimes we hear about are separate, unrelated cases of "bad apples." If every other apple is bad, then something is wrong with our tree. I don't think the Obama administration has fully grasped this yet.

Public outrage is swelling against an economic system that has failed. This is playing out the way it always does: The public is looking for something to smash. Something is going to be torn down and stomped to pieces; we just don't know what it will be yet. Over the next few years, the politics that arises victorious from this situation is going to be a populist politics one way or another. If progressives delay, the right wing will provide their own freshly polished faux-populism to steal the next couple of decades--a new What's-The-Matter-With-Kansas judo strategy to take our anger at "the system" and redirect it against one another and against the very social cooperation that provides our best hope. "It's big government's fault! It's the minorities! The immigrants! The atheists! The lazy poor!" ...all over again.

Do we need to replay the last 30 years? We will, if we're not careful. 

Instead, the Left needs to offer some honest-to-God progressive populism as an alternative. I think the public is more receptive now to bold new ideas than at any time since the Great Depression. 

But we shouldn't underestimate how difficult it will be to break the spell of the Religion of Capital. Even as people lose their homes and watch their futures blow away, the old-as-money arguments of the wealthy class are still so deeply ingrained in us. We know we could build a country where everyone who wants to work can, everyone has access to quality healthcare, and every senior has a pension that affords a decent retirement, but we hesitate because we feel like doing those things would break some holy and exalted law. It's a religion that we've been taught since we were young, and the deepest parts of it we dare not question--that is, until things get so desperate that we're willing to explore the alternatives. 

If you're just joining us, welcome to one of those desperate times. Obama still has the political momentum to break the spell and do something big. He can ride this wave of public outrage and direct it toward something constructive. He can begin to tear down the giant pillars of wasteful greed in our economy and begin to build up the things that will improve people's daily lives. 

If he doesn't start to do this, and cedes populist energy to the Right, then he will not win re-election. (Other than some random sexy scandal, this is his biggest threat to re-election.) The nastiness of our economy will be hung around his neck--and rightfully so. He may not have created it, but if he is seen as enabling it, then it becomes his own.

Right now, there are some hopeful signs but the Obama administration is not yet showing the bold leadership we need to bring about a fundamental change in our economy. I think this is partly because the two biggest economic voices in the administration are 90s-style neoliberals: Larry Summers (Obama's chief economic advisor) and Tim Geithner (Treasury Secretary). 

Back in February, I predicted that these free-marketeers would either 
1) evolve into progressives, 
2) be overpowered by progressives in the administration, or 
3) lose their jobs. 

Larry now looks like he's heading down path #2, if by "progressives in the administration" we mean President Obama himself. Summers went on TV trying to make us believe the government should do nothing about AIG paying lavish bonuses with taxpayer money, before Obama contradicted him the next day, saying the government would move to block the bonuses. Geithner is probably closer to path #3, losing his job. He has the wrong instincts (like he's serving as Treasury Secretary 15 years too late), which bring him down on the wrong side of these bailouts-n'-bonuses issues. 

What does all this mean? Obama can either ride the wave of public outrage or he can stand against it and be crushed by it. By jettisoning Summers and Geithner now and replacing them with progressive economists who don't pretend it's still the 1990s, Obama would signal that he will not stand against the rising tide for change. Holding on to these guys will lead Obama to his own "Heckuva job, Brownie" moment and could very well make him the new owner and latest defender of our failed economic system.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rush to the Right

Have you been following all this Rush in the news? Good Lord.

The story is basically this:  
Democrats are saying, "Hey look, Rush Limbaugh is now the leader of the GOP! Hahahahaha!" 
Republicans are split into two camps:  
Some say, "Nah, Rush is just Rush, a radio guy, an entertainer." 
While others say, "What's wrong with Rush? Rush is right!"
There's been some good reporting about how this whole line of discussion was planted by Democratic strategists as early as October 2008. And it's easy to see why. Rush is ridiculous to 75% of the country. But Republicans can't throw him under the bus, because that other 25% run their campaigns.

I've been surprised how well this line of attack has caught on. I admit I thought it was a little lame when I first heard about it. I mean, isn't Rush so 90s? So he said he wants Obama to fail. Hasn't he always talked like that? 

But both Letterman and Leno have picked up the meme, not to mention Stewart and some of the other usual characters. And in a way that doesn't easily lend itself to linking to funny videos, the notion that Rush is the Republican leader has just, well, caught on. The message might have come from the left, but it stuck in the middle.

I think it's caught on because it's true. What other single person is more influential, more of a leader, within the Republican coalition than Rush? And if he is patently ridiculous and there's no real difference between what he's saying and what Republican politicians are saying, then aren't they ridiculous too? If those politicians criticize his statements but then have to come crawling back to apologize, doesn't that tell us who is the dominant partner in the relationship?

And man, seeing the Republican politicians line up to apologize to Rush has been a little sad but very revealing about the party's balance of power. Kudos to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for having the with-it-ness to launch a website called I'm Sorry Rush that hammers home the point.

There have been a couple of prominent Republicans who have managed, to varying degrees, to set themselves apart from Rush (see here and here). But the fact that such things are even news sort of proves the Democrats' point.

Let's face it. The GOP isn't finished shrinking yet. When a party shrinks, it loses moderates first, making it more extremist and even less appealing to moderates. As most moderates head for the exit, the few of them who remain take a look around the party and see it's now mostly Limbaughs and, God forbid, Coulters. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

CNBC Brings You This "Breaking News!"

The richest man in the world opposes the Employee Free Choice Act.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Viva La Dubya

I used to rule the world...

Seas would rise when I gave the word

U.S. President George W. Bush (C), flanked by Franciscan priests, overlooks the Sea of Galilee, in the ancient village of Capernaum, January 11 2008. Sending a symbolic message to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, U.S. President George W. Bush visited on Friday the site where Jesus is believed to have intoned "blessed are the peacemakers". From Reuters Pictures by REUTERS.

Now in the morning I sleep alone...


Sweep the streets I used to own.

I used to roll the dice,
Feel the fear in my enemy's eyes

Listen as the crowd would sing,
"Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!"

One minute I held the key...

Next the walls were closed on me,

And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.

It was the wicked and wild wind...

Blew down the doors to let me in

Shattered windows and the sound of drums...

People couldn't believe what I'd become.

Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate

Just a puppet on a lonely string...

Oh who would ever want to be king?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

My Marxist Gas-Guzzling SUV

Our Ford Explorer is covered in salt dust after the big snow storm on Monday, and I haven't even thought about washing it off. And neither have I thought about peeling off my "Obama '08" bumper sticker.

My wife and I just noticed today that someone has written with their finger, just above the Obama sticker:
My first response was, Huh? I mean, who or what is Marxist? The President or me? Or my dirty car? 

It's been funny thinking of the few places I've been since the storm and trying to imagine who wrote it and when they might have done it. The buggy-pusher in the parking lot at Giant? The woman at the next pump at the gas station? My neighbor? (That would be a little creepy.)

I live in the Washington DC area, so there are millions of these stickers everywhere. Does Mystery Person have the same reaction to every Obama sticker they see? If so, then they are exhausted and their index finger is filthy and cramping.

After "Huh?" my second reaction was to start thinking of what to write back. Maybe something like:
Not sure what you mean. Can we discuss in more depth? 
As I stepped up to the car to send my response, my wife leaned down, grabbed a handful of snow, and wiped the message board clean. "We need to wash the car," she said as she went on about her day. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Another Note on "Removing the Secret Ballot"

Because I can't stop beating this dead horse.

Another flaw in the business lobby's favorite argument against the Employee Free Choice Act is that it equates secret ballots with fair elections. One of their TV ads shows a character from "The Sopranos" looking over the shoulder of a guy in a voting booth. You don't want mobsters watching you vote, do you?

Well, union elections are not federal elections. Federal elections come with secret ballots plus laws that protect political speech and other standards of fairness. Union elections come with secret ballots plus an almost completely one-sided, employer-dominated campaign. I stole the following chart from American Rights at Work, and it helps demonstrate my point:
 election standards comparison
If we're just dead set on having secret ballots for every union election, then let's remake our workplaces and overhaul labor law, so that the column on the right side of this chart is full of green checks. Then we can drop the card-check provision from Employee Free Choice. Would industry representatives join us in this effort, seeing how they are such champions of free and fair elections? The answer, of course, is hell-to-the-double-no. The captains of industry know that truly fair union elections would require reforms running much deeper than the Employee Free Choice Act's modest majority signup provision. The bill that would make the chart above full of green checks would be one of the most radical, leftist laws our country has ever seen.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

The battle lines have been drawn for one of the most important fights of President Obama's first term: The Employee Free Choice Act. The opposing sides continue to bolster their ranks and bring more troops to the front. The only question now is when will the battle begin in ernest, in other words, when will this bill come up for debate in Congress.

It's hard to find any other issue where the battle lines are so clear. 

On the Left:  President Obama, unions, virtually all Democratic politicians, and nearly every non-union progressive organization--from the Sierra Club to the NAACP, from Human Rights Watch to the United Methodist Church. 

On the Right:  Congressional Republicans (hailing mainly from the Deep South and Great Plains), every conservative advocacy organization, and the overt representatives of big business--the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and corporate lobbyists.

At stake:  A landmark piece of legislation that would 1) remove employers' most convenient tactics for preventing workers from starting unions, 2) increase penalties against employers who engage in illegal labor practices, and 3) mandate federal mediation and arbitration in the case of an employer refusing to bargain with a new union. 

Both sides are working hard to make sure their people don't drift to the other side or forget that there's a fight. Every week you can read a panicked blogger somewhere on the Left saying that Obama is already throwing in the towel and backing away from Employee Free Choice. The very next day you'll see an article like this one, quoting the latest pro-labor statement from Obama, appearing to demonstrate his unwavering support.

On the Right, you read about the frantic ravings of Newt Gingrich and others trying to marshal the shock troops of big capital. At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, Newt said, "This bill is a mortal threat to American freedom and we will never forgive somebody who votes for cloture or for passage." He is speaking of course to the few moderate Republicans (apparently there are still a few) who might join with Democrats to vote for cloture on the bill, thereby sending it to an up-or-down vote that would certainly pass the heavily Democratic Senate. 

The way conservatives have modified their attack on Employee Free Choice has been instructive. 

At first, their line was that America simply "can't afford" stronger unions when the economy is weak. The antiquated logic of the top-floor corner office crowd was that, if anything, workers should gladly accept cuts in wages in benefits right now. The message was that the economy has tanked, in part, because businesses can't compete globally thanks to these outdated institutions called unions weighing them down. (Which is--ahem!--B.S.) But the problem was that the public simply doesn't buy that argument anymore. The American people are supportive of unions, and they just elected the most pro-labor president since FDR. 

Too many people know the truth: The decline of unionization rates since the 1970s has coincided with the ascendency of Reagan-Bush conservatism and Gilded Age-esque wealth inequality. What do you know? When unions wither, so does the middle class. Most Americans may not have thought of it in exactly that way. But they do know that corporations are too powerful--in the workplace and in the halls of congress--and that regular people have been squeezed tighter and tighter while the wealthiest Americans have done better than ever.

So conservatives had to change their tune. Lately, their line of attack is to say the Employee Free Choice Act would "take away the secret ballot" in union elections. Now, before we even explain why this is a lie, stop and think about who is saying it. The great corporations and the right wing are suddenly  concerned with protecting workers' rights? The perennial opponents of organized workers want to promote workplace democracy? How suddenly benevolent of them! (I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.)

By the way, it's a lie. Employee Free Choice doesn't take away the secret ballot. It puts the choice between secret ballot or card-check/majority signup in the workers' hands instead of the employer's. As I've said before:
What [the anti-unionists] really mean is, the Employee Free Choice Act would "take away the employer's right to require workers to sit through a long anti-union campaign of bribery and intimidation before voting on a secret ballot, even if all of the workers have already indicated they want a union." But yeah, "take away the secret ballot" has a better ring to it.
I don't think the American people will buy the "remove the secret ballot argument" either. For one, the argument implies that workers are scared of being intimidated by union organizers forcing them to sign up for the union. That happens less in reality than in right-wing dreams. But if people really start thinking about intimidation in the workplace, they realize it comes almost entirely from their employer. And too many employers use the NLRB election process to pull out all the stops against their workers. Why not give the employees another choice about how to start a union that would avoid the bosses' wrath? 

This post is already longer than I intended. I have to actively restrain myself from turning BTM into an entirely Employee Free Choice Act blog. 

On a final note, I don't think the Right will stop us on this one. The growing tide of support for a fair economy and a larger say for ordinary people seems, to me, too big to push back. Even if they can temporarily stall the Employee Free Choice Act--just one part of the tide--they can't stall everything else that will come up at them. Stuff is gonna happen. The humiliation of the Bush years and the presidential election have awakened something that isn't going to die easily. I know I'm painting in broad strokes here. But think about it. Working people are marching in the streets of Europe chanting "Yes We Can!" In American cities, grassroots organizations are resisting foreclosures with civil disobedience. No one knows exactly where this is leading, but we can say for sure that we've entered a new era of political possibilities.