Politics & Poker: Will Obama Put His Full Muscle Behind EFCA?

Posted February 13, 2009 at 6:01pm

Now that the massive stimulus package is out of the way, labor unions and their liberal allies are gearing up for their next legislative push — the Employee Free Choice Act.

[IMGCAP(1)]It may make the fight over the stimulus seem easy.

But how committed are liberals, really, to seeing the EFCA through? There’s no question that conservative groups and their friends in Congress are armed and ready to fight the measure, which makes it easier for workers to unionize and provides other rights. Are their counterparts on the left equally prepared? And what are the political ramifications of the EFCA for 2010?

Union leaders say the change that the voters demanded in the 2008 elections, coupled with the worsening economy, are proof that the bill’s time has come.

“When we look back at Nov. 4, we see it as a transformational time in our country,” said Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the powerful Service Employees International Union. “The election was really about electing a government that will work for people.”

Mary Beth Maxwell, the executive director of the pro-labor group American Rights at Work, argues for the legislation this way: “We are not going to get out of this economic crisis if people can’t get jobs, go to work and spend money.”

In the previous Congress, card check, as the measure is sometimes known, passed the House but was stymied in the Senate. Proponents say that with more Democrats in the Senate now and with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, the bill is destined to become law.

But maybe unions shouldn’t count their growing membership lists before the law is hatched. Conservative groups and Republicans in Congress are spoiling for a fight. In an interview with the Washington Post just before he was sworn in, Obama acknowledged that these groups see the measure as “the devil incarnate.”

It isn’t just business groups that are opposing the EFCA. Many right-wing organizations have promised political jihad. In the past several months, key conservative pundits have weighed in on why they think the EFCA is bad for America.

You can agree with them or not, but you can’t deny that they’ve marshalled their forces.

Which is not to say the EFCA supporters haven’t. Certainly the unions are ready. They ought to be: This is at the very top of their wish list. They helped elect Obama, they helped expand the Democratic majorities in Congress and they’re right to expect their due.

Burger said the SEIU has essentially converted its 2008 election apparatus into an operation designed to keep union members mobilized and put pressure on elected officials. In a 50-minute conversation with reporters Friday, she used the word “drumbeat” eight times to describe the SEIU’s push for a progressive agenda.

But where’s the backup? Where are the liberal pundits explaining why they think card check is good for American workers and the American economy? Bob Herbert did so in the New York Times last May, and the newspaper ran a supportive editorial a few weeks ago, but there has not been a steady stream of opinion-writing.

David Bonior, the former Michigan Congressman who is president of American Rights at Work, carries a colorful sheet of paper with him listing an alphabet’s soup of liberal groups supporting the measure. But most have been relatively mute on the subject compared to their conservative brethren, though the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute have issued papers in support of the EFCA. As Woody Allen observed in the movie “Manhattan,” in a fight, “a devastatingly satirical piece” on the Times’ op-ed page is no match for bricks, chains and baseball bats.

Even more ominously for proponents, Obama hasn’t disclosed how hard he’s ready to fight for the measure. Sure, he has said he wants to reverse the antilabor policies of the Bush administration and, of course, he’ll sign the bill if it lands on his desk. But will he use his bully pulpit to ensure that it gets a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate? Obama, in his conversation with the Post, went so far as to say that he would entertain alternatives to card check if business leaders can convince him that “there are more elegant ways of doing this.”

Unions are still believing in a place called hope. Bill Samuel, the legislative director for the AFL-CIO, predicted Obama won’t need to expend any political capital because once voters focus on the issue, they’ll overwhelmingly be for the bill. But, he conceded that “the partisan nature of this debate is a concern. This thing can’t pass without at least a few Republicans. You can’t get to cloture without Republicans.” That’s why you may not see a bill dropped until Minnesota Democrat Al Franken gets to the Senate — assuming that he actually ever does.

Without a doubt, the debate over the EFCA, rhetorically, is a battle of the bases, with Republicans pandering to their conservative supporters and Democrats presumably pandering to theirs in the labor movement. But if the last election taught us anything, it’s that competitive races are usually won in the middle.

It’s clear that Republicans plan to use the measure against Democratic officeholders in 2010. In an interview with Roll Call reporters and editors last week, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said the NRSC would closely “look at the roster of 2010 Democrats who are up [for re-election] who are from right-to-work states, and how they vote on card check.”

For those of you scoring at home, there are only three Democrats in that group: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Sens. Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.). Reid is already a top Republican target. Dorgan is probably safe unless Gov. John Hoeven (R) or former Gov. Ed Schafer (R) decide to run against him, and both have resisted pressure to make Senate bids in the past few cycles. And in Arkansas, the GOP bench is tissue-thin.

But extrapolate that to the 80 or so House districts that are represented by Democrats but voted for the Republican nominee in either one or both of the past two presidential elections, and you get a good idea of the GOP’s strategy.

Maxwell predicted that voters would reject the Republicans’ “old-school negative campaigns,” and Samuel pointed out that all but a couple of Democratic House Members “proudly” voted for the EFCA in 2007, without any fear for the political consequences. Burger promised that organized labor is poised to “go to the mat” for Democratic candidates in competitive districts, just as it did in 2008.

“We are on the air right now, but more important, we are on the ground and in the face of elected officials,” she said.

Sometime during the Reagan era, Republicans successfully labeled labor unions special interests — equating groups representing the interests of millions of working men and women with corporate fat cats. And it has stuck ever since. Democrats take the support of labor for granted; many vote for the unions’ legislative priorities, but not many are actually manning the barricades, championing their cause.

Union leaders note that polls continue to show support for expanding workers’ rights. But if conservatives are vocally opposing the EFCA, if Republicans are poised to vote against it and then campaign against it in 2010, shouldn’t labor’s liberal allies be prepared to tell voters the other side of the story?