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. 

1 comment:

Becky said...

I like what you say about the conservatives' charge that the bill will take away the secret ballot. Such doublespeak.

It kind of reminds me of how they accused democrats who didn't like Sarah Palin of being anti-feminist. You have to ask yourself, "Who is saying this?"

Anyway, I needed this primer--thanks.