Throughout the 2008 campaign, the “card-check” provision of the Employee Free Choice act was a political lightning rod. Business groups hammered candidates across the country, including Al Franken in Minnesota, with ads pillorying the proposal as an attack on workers’ rights. Organized labor lobbied ferociously for the provision, which would allow workers to unionize when more than half have signed cards indicating support for collective bargaining. They argued that it was essential to rejuvenating the labor movement after decades of decline, and spent millions working to get Democrats elected in the belief that they would pass the card-check provision.
So when The New York Times reported last month that Democratic leaders had quietly decided to drop the controversial measure from the Employee Free Choice Act without so much as a vote, it came as something of a slap in the face to organized labor. While union officials insist that card check is not yet dead, it seems unlikely that the labor law revision will ultimately be enacted.
“It’d be really really nice if the Democrats would grow a little bit of a backbone,” said Martin Goff, organizing director for UNITE HERE Local 17. “We have the House, the Senate and the presidency. Yet these guys start going to their second, third and fourth positions before the Republicans even ask for it. I’m disgusted actually.”
Bernie Hesse, an organizer with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, is similarly put off by the backpedaling from Democrats.
“Why did we do all this work?” Hesse asked. “That’s kind of a weird way to bargain, to start taking stuff away before they even start marking up the bill.”
Hesse has traveled to Washington, D.C., in order to lobby for the Employee Free Choice Act. He described organized labor’s dalliance with Democrats as an abusive relationship. “We keep going back to them even though they beat us,” he said.
The need for an overhaul of the country’s labor laws is obvious from organized labor’s perspective. The number of workers belonging to unions has been in free-fall in recent decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 12 percent of workers were union members in 2008, down from just over 20 percent in 1983, the first year for which federal statistics were kept.
Union organizers blame this decline in part on increasingly aggressive campaigns by employers to fight organizing efforts and weak labor laws that only offer a slap on the wrist to companies that break the law. Indeed, according to a study released in May by Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, companies have become more brazen in their anti-union tactics. The study found that more than half of the companies examined threatened employees with wage cuts or shuttered work sites, and roughly one third fired workers for pro-union activities. Even when workers did vote to organize, the study found that more than half were without an initial labor contract after a year.
“What’s happened under the existing labor laws is that employers and their attorneys have figured out where the holes are,” said Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College. “They’re able to intimidate workers, they’re able to create a climate of fear, they’re able to discourage workers from availing themselves of their right to organize.”
The Employee Free Choice Act is designed to make such anti-union tactics more difficult for companies to utilize. In addition to the card-check provision, it would also force binding arbitration on companies if they fail to reach agreement on a labor contract after a year — a provision that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests are equally alarmed by. The legislation would also provide tougher punishments — including fines — for companies that flout the laws.
But Rachleff also argues that unions must share the blame for their decline. He believes that even if organized labor ultimately gets everything it wants in the Employee Free Choice Act it won’t be sufficient to rejuvenate their ranks.
“I have low expectations of what the Employee Free Choice Act would mean if it were passed,” he said. “I don’t think that the existing labor movement is prepared to get out and organize even if the ground rules were to change.”
Rachleff is not at all surprised that Democrats appear to be backing away from the most controversial element of the legislation and believes that labor leaders are complicit in the decision to drop card check.
“Various union leaders signaled to the Democrats that it was OK,” he said. “It’s just a sorry-ass situation. The leaders of the existing labor organizations, they have to find things to make it look like they’re doing something. Pushing the Employee Free Choice Act became something very convenient for them to look like they were spending their members’ dues on good things.”
But local labor leaders insist that the card-check provision is not dead. Shar Knutson, president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, was on a conference call with national union leaders on Tuesday to get an update on the situation.
“It’s still in play,” she said. “No one’s conceding anything.”
Eric Lehto, director of organizing for AFSCME Council 5, said the union will be mobilizing its 43,000 members to lobby Minnesota’s legislators during the legislative break for Labor Day. U.S. Sen. Al Franken immediately signed-on as a co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act upon finally being seated in Washington. But Lehto and other labor leaders believe Minnesota’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, could more forcefully promote passage of the legislation, including the card-check provision.
“We would like to see Amy take more of a pro-active effort in pushing the legislation and publicly advocating for it,” he says.
Lehto believes it’s not too late to save the card-check provision that labor unions spent so much time and money advocating for during the last election cycle.
“I wouldn’t say it’s dead,” he said. “There’s still work to be done during recess. What the final bill’s going to look like I don’t know.”
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