For Democrats, ‘Card Check’ May Be SAD, Not MAD

Posted January 6, 2010 at 3:07pm

Though there was talk of a “nuclear option— in the debate over health insurance legislation, the biggest Beltway battle in years may still lie ahead. 

[IMGCAP(1)]Now that increasingly beleaguered Democrats have succeeded in securing health care legislation, the primary question haunting the Beltway is whether Big Labor will get a vote on its coveted “card check— bill ahead of the midterm Congressional elections. For today’s lawmakers, the choice to pick this fight is not so much akin to a Cold War-style mutual assured destruction model in which everyone loses. Rather, it is the possibility that Democrats will choose to risk their majority fighting for an unpopular, watered-down version of the Employee Free Choice Act. Call it the SAD (self-assured destruction) route.

For its part, Big Labor is signaling a demand for action on EFCA. Steve Rosenthal, a top strategist for organized labor, has argued in print that Democrats need to take action to motivate union grass-roots activists for the election and to pass the bill to “energize the union apparatus.—

How many moderate Democrats want to actually energize the labor “apparatus— is up for debate, but the importance of EFCA is not. The president of the Service Employees International Union has suggested the bill could add 1 million to 1.5 million members per year to his union. And the head of the Teamsters estimated that the bill could double his rolls. One estimate put the monetary value of the bill for unions at $35 billion. The head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees blatantly admitted EFCA would be the payback for political support in 2008.

The problem for Democrats, though, is that while EFCA is the top priority for their top special interest group, it’s not for most of their constituents. 

Strategically, the battle is on terrible terrain for unions and Democrats. Labor, at its lowest approval in decades of Gallup research, simply cannot overcome the disadvantage on messaging: EFCA would effectively eliminate secret ballots and impose government bureaucrats to set rules for small business.

Similarly, there is a great ammunition disparity. Business groups have raised tens of millions of dollars to spend on TV and radio spots, polling and grass-roots outreach. Because the fight is critical to a flexible and competitive work force, employers will dig deep to fight EFCA and candidates pushing it, while union officials largely drained their resources to bankroll the 2008 efforts and don’t have the same ability to reload for 2010.

For these reasons, the issue is a clear winner for the GOP. Opposition to card check (as well as to cap-and-trade) played a significant part in the gubernatorial victory for Republican Bob McDonnell in Virginia. Candidates are making their distaste for EFCA part of their public case in Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas and Nevada. Meanwhile, a front-and-center fight on card check is a nightmare for Democratic Senators such as Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.).

Perhaps worst of all for Democratic strategists, card check puts business and the GOP back on the same side. Whereas enough rent-seeking companies could jump ship on industry-specific issues, employers have no choice but to side with Republicans on EFCA. Instead of the magic “wedge— issue politicians fiendishly crave, card check is a high-performance epoxy binding employers to the GOP. 

Still, with as much money as unions threw at 2008 campaigns, Democrats cannot simply tell labor to shelve card check. That’s why even union-tied strategists like Rosenthal say “something— must pass. But “something— is as nebulous as it gets, and any bill weak enough to attract moderate Democrats already blistered by health care and cap-and-trade discussions is unlikely to be strong enough for union officials to accept.

Given the strategically disastrous nature of EFCA, even raising the issue for a vote ranks with the wisdom of starting a land war in Asia or going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line. So whether unions get a quiet vote on a stripped-out EFCA or they get told to go sit quietly in the corner will be the biggest political decision of 2010 for the White House and Congressional leaders looking to keep their seats. 

Bret Jacobson is president of the research and communications firm Maverick Strategies, which assists employers, associations and nonprofits.