Labor, Foes Monitor Late Races

Posted November 20, 2008 at 6:39pm

Election Day may be fading in the rearview mirror, but the journey has only begun for supporters and opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act.

Because it is considered to be the most sweeping reform to labor relations in recent history, groups on both sides of the EFCA debate invested millions of dollars in the issue during the 2008 cycle. And with increased Democratic majorities and President-elect Barack Obama’s support, the EFCA has its best chance yet of becoming law.

But with two Senate contests yet to be decided and considering the fact that the Senate has yet to vote directly on the issue, opponents say the bill is far from a done deal — and both sides are still working to influence the two unresolved races.

The bill, also known as “card check,” would make it easier for unions to organize workplaces by allowing the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union if a majority of employees vote to organize. EFCA opponents say this leaves the door wide open to worker intimidation because union organizers would know which employees voted.

The House passed the bill in March 2007, but it was filibustered in the Senate later that year with only one Republican —Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) — joining all the Democrats present to vote for cloture.

For both sides, the Senate vote should theoretically come down to simple math: Democrats will have 58 seats in the Senate, plus one more if Specter repeats his June 2007 vote for cloture.

The remaining 60th vote could come down to the two uncertain races in Minnesota and Georgia. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) currently is holding off comedian Al Franken (D) by less than 200 votes — a tally that changes regularly during the statewide mandatory recount. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) will face former state Rep. Jim Martin (D) in a Dec. 2 runoff in Georgia.

“Certainly these states are critical to the arithmetic on whether the unions could put together 60 votes to cut off debate on card-check, so they are very, very important,” said Steven Law, the chief legal officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber, which opposes the legislation, plans to spend more than $1 million on television, radio, mail and phones in the Georgia runoff to warn voters about the perils of the EFCA legislation. In Minnesota, the chamber has sent staff and recruited lawyers to aid Coleman in the recount.

The AFL-CIO sent direct mail to 81,000 union voters in Georgia, part of the 300,000 union voters that spokeswoman Alison Omens said the federation is targeting as part of “a full-scale field mobilization program.” Omens said the AFL-CIO also recruited volunteers to man the recount in Minnesota.

Sen.-elect Mark Begich’s (D) win in Alaska earlier this week was another boon for pro-union groups. But Democratic wins in Minnesota or Georgia would put Democrats even closer to passing the legislation.

“Alaska is great news,” said Mary Beth Maxwell, executive director of American Rights at Work, a nonprofit pro-labor group. “We had majorities in support of this legislation before the election. We have bigger majorities now.”

Maxwell said that while the outcome of the two outstanding Senate contests would help their EFCA efforts, the post-election momentum is on the side of the unions.

“Clearly, they make a big difference,” Maxwell said. “We want to get support every single place that we can.”

Spending on 2008 Senate races on this issue eclipsed almost every other, though it is difficult to determine how much the two sides spent because some of the major players are not required to submit documented spending because of their tax status.

American Rights at Work reported that it spent $4.6 million on television spots this past cycle, plus $400,000 in print, billboard and other alternative forms of advertising — most all of which was aimed at education voters on EFCA.

In addition to $1.7 million in national ads, American Rights at Work spent heavily in states with competitive Senate races: $625,000 in Louisiana, $310,000 in Maine, $420,000 in Minnesota, $470,000 in Mississippi, $605,000 in New Hampshire and $475,000 in Oregon.

The Service Employees International Union spent $75 million on its political efforts this cycle, including activities for EFCA, although specific state-by-state spending breakdowns were not available.

On the other side of the issue, pro- business groups such as the Employee Freedom Action Committee dropped $20 million on voter education on the EFCA in nine states with hot Senate races: Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, Mississippi, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Maine, North Carolina and Louisiana.

The Chamber of Commerce also spent heavily on educating voters on these issues — officials say a figure in the upper seven digits — as part of a total $30 million in advertising for issue advocacy this cycle.

But even though the numbers might not be in their favor, Law said the chamber is “cautiously optimistic” that the EFCA legislation will not pass.

“It ultimately is a filibuster strategy, and that’s what it really comes down to,” he said. “The math really is whether the other side can get to 60 or not.”

Law said that if Democrats can get enough votes for cloture, pro-business groups could look to some Democrats who might be willing to block the legislation.

According to sources on both sides of the issue, Democratic Senators from states without a strong union presence could be likely targets, including those from Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana and Virginia, among others.

Business Interest Political Action Committee President Greg Casey said it’s possible that many Senators might reconsider their positions if the vote reaches the floor.

“I don’t think this is nearly the same slam-dunk that people think it is,” Casey said. “I think the electorate this time is paying very close attention to what they’re doing.”