By Dave Lindorff
We are witnessing one of the fastest betrayals of the Democratic
Party base in modern memory, as President Barack Obama and the
Democratic Party leadership in the Senate slither away from a crucial
constituency, the labor movement, and from support of labor’s key
legislative agenda item: passage of a bill, “The Employee Free Choice
Act,” which would restore a measure of fairness to labor relations.
Obama, who once supported the measure, and who campaigned saying he
would sign the bill, has stood shamelessly silent as a massive
corporate campaign mounted by such lobbying powerhouses as the US
Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the
National Retail Federation, hiding behind a fake “citizen action”
organization called the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace (sic), has
descended on Congress, and especially the Senate, where it has been
working to peel away support for the bill among both Democrats and
swing Republicans who had formally backed the measure.
The business lobbying campaign is having considerable success. Sen.
Arlen Specter (R-PA), who is facing a Republican primary threat next
year from a conservative challenger, has already announced that he will
not support allowing the Employee Free Choice Act to go to the floor
for debate and a vote in the Senate. As well, Sen. Diane Feinstein
(D-CA), a former co-sponsor of the bill when it was last introduced in
the Senate in 2007, now says she will not support it.
Since 60 votes are needed to move a bill past a Senate filibuster
vowed by Republicans, Specter’s defection is particularly damaging. It
is also a betrayal of the many unions that have consistently backed
this sometimes unpredictable Republican. But Feinstein’s volte face
is a particularly odious betraytal of her union backers in heavily
unionized California. With senators like Feinstein caving in to
corporate anti-union pressure, it makes it less likely that Senate
Democrats would or could move to push the bill through past a
filibuster by more confrontational means, such as attaching it to a
budget bill that would not be subject to a filibuster—something
Republicans did a number of times when they had control of the Senate
between 2002 and 2006.
Clearly, the key turncoat in this sorry tale is Obama, whose
presidential campaign would have sunk into oblivion early had it not
been for powerful support from key elements of organized labor. It was
also undeniably organized labor’s army of grass roots backers that
handed him victory, a majority of the popular vote, and a mandate for
“change” in November over Republican John McCain.
If Obama were to strongly advocate for Employee Free Choice, he
could clearly line up the backing needed to win its approval in both
houses. Moderate Republicans like Specter need Obama’s support for
their own pet bills, and would have no hope of accomplishing anything,
much less bringing home the bacon that they need in order to win
re-election, without the president’s willingness to support them. This
gives Obama enormous leverage if he wants to use it. Wavering members
of his own party, like Feinstein, would also certainly respond
favorably to his calls for backing on a key issue for his base. But he
has chosen instead to duck this issue.
Anyone who thought, as I once did out of an excess of optimism,
that this president was positioned to act in this economic crisis as
did the once equally reticent Franklin Roosevelt before him, should see
clearly now that this president is not that same kind of bold
risk-taker as FDR. Obama, rather, is following in the well-worn path of
gutless political hacks before him like President Bill Clinton and
Jimmy Carter, kowtowing to the wishes of the corporate elite and taking
the Democratic grassroots for granted.
Employee Free Choice, which would have reversed 50 years of steady
erosion of workers’ organizing rights by ending employers’ ability to
stall off union elections for years, fire union organizers with
impunity, and intimidate pro-union employees, by mandating that unions
be recognized once they had obtained signature cards of support from
over 50% of a work unit, is only one sign of this betrayal, of course,
but it is a significant one.
Meanwhile, even as the Employee Free Choice bill is swirling
ominously around the drain, a new study is giving the lie to the main
argument the corporate lobbyists have been using to win over one-time
backers like Specter and Feinstein: the fear-mongering claim that
facilitating unionization in a recessionary time could lead to business
Not so, says labor economist John DiNardo of the University of
Michigan, who just released a study titled “Still Open for Business:
Unionization Has No Causal Effect on Firm Closures,” published by the
Economic Policy Institute
DiNardo’s study cites two surveys of similar enterprises at which
workers either narrowly won union votes by 51% or narrowly lost by 49%.
These surveys, covering the period 1961-2004, found “zero correlation”
between a company’s being unionized and the likelihood of its failing.
“I don’t think business leaders or people like Sen. Specter are
crazy,” DiNardo says. “Many of them probably honestly do believe that
having a union increases the likelihood of business failure, but the
evidence is just not there. In fact, wages don’t always even go up when
a company is unionized.”
DiNardo speculates that what really may cause many corporate
managers and business owners to bitterly oppose unionization is not the
fear of business failure or even perhaps of higher labor costs, but
rather the fear of losing control over workers.
“Business managers in non-union firms are more like monarchs,” he
says. “With a union, a company becomes slightly more democratic, and
the manager becomes more like a president.”
That puts the name of the anti-Employee Free Choice Act business
lobbying coalition in an interesting light. Obviously no corporate
lobbying organization is actually in favor of democracy in the
workplace, as their name deceptively implies.