The other day I spent a couple of hours at a meeting of union activists at which a pretty good crowd listened to speakers about the Employee Free Choice Act. Unhappily, I came away worried that this proposed law, organized labor's primary Congressional agenda item, is not going to see smooth sailing.
What's the Employee Free Choice Act about? Easy, it's about making it more difficult and more expensive for employers to bully, harass and intimidate workers who want to form a union. The law would
- increase penalties for violations of labor law. At present anti-union employers consider the minimal penalties a cost of doing business.
- Allow employees to win union representation by majority sign up (so-called card check) instead of forcing them into a months long election process during which the people who control their pay checks can use any combination of threats and lies to try to break the organizing drive.
- Require that, if employees do join a union, the company must either agree to a contract in three months or submit the labor dispute to neutral arbitration.
So why do I fear this reasonable measure is in trouble? Partly because the sort of meeting I was in, full of the best and most active unionists, was just getting up to speed on what it is about -- and that's people inside the labor movement. Speakers agreed that if it doesn't get done fast, business will be able to bottle it up. In areas where Congresscritters and Senators can be swayed, millions of dollars are already committed to TV ads against passage.
But I'm also worried when I survey the terrain on which labor is trying to win relief. I read things like this from a writer I often find perceptive.
He's got it that with the economic downturn, he might have to examine his preconceptions, but with this as a starting point, he's going to have a ways to go before he considers passing labor law reform an important priority.
And he's not uncommon. I saw the same detachment from labor's agenda at the Obama 2.0 meeting I attended awhile back.
I think it is accurate to describe the Obama coalition as having been composed of four major groups. (This typology owes a lot to Carl Davidson's observations.) Many campaign offices were organized and run by "Obama youth" -- very young, mostly white but accustomed to somewhat multi-racial environments, true believers in "change" and "yes, we can!". In addition, there was the Black community, energized and involved as never before, performing miracles of activism and turnout. Then there were the Democratic regulars, what passes for the party apparatus where such a thing exists, eager for a bigger slice of the governmental pie. Finally there was the huge labor field operation that turned out its own base and increased Obama's (minority) share of the white working class vote.
Only the last of these segments considers the Employee Free Choice Act important. The others will be supportive with a nod from the President-elect. But they won't go to war for it and anti-union employers will. That prospect is not encouraging.
Tim Costello at Global Labor Strategies has written an interesting piece about how he sees labor missing the boat despite being a necessary part of electing a "change" President. [My emphasis.]
Costello is almost certainly right. The labor movement is full of people who know that -- as well as others who can't imagine mustering that much sheer energy and enthusiasm for a desperate fight. In part they are hampered in taking up the role of the voice of the working people at large by the natural legacy of decades of bad labor law: they've had to be so good at manipulating the minutia of legalisms that they have forgotten how to look around at the forest.
We can count on labor to try -- but labor also needs the rest of us in the Employee Free Choice Act fight and to insist on wider perspectives. It's one of those situations where, if the people move, our leaders may follow ...