Mar 12, 2009

The Labor Movement, Obama, and the EFCA

What we might one day look back on as the "neoliberal era"—roughly the last 30-35 years—has also undoubtedly been an era of general declension for the American labor movement. There is really nothing good about that and much that is rather disastrous. While unions themselves deserve some of the blame for their loss of power due to their own poor decisions, various external factors are far more critical.

For example:
  1. Deindustrialization (which really began in the 1950s, though it hit harder later) limited the power of some of the most important and aggressive unions in the country—particularly those that were based largely in Northern industrial cities.
  2. Anti-labor laws like the federal Taft-Hartley Act and state laws such as New York's Taylor Law (which prevents state public employees from striking) severely restricted union activities.
  3. Conservative politicians and business leaders have been surprisingly effective at portraying unions as selfish and harmful to the national economy (Reagan's successful efforts to break the 1981 air-traffic controllers' strike—which included a very competent PR campaign to label controllers as greedy, lawbreaking jerks—are rightly seen as a turning point in terms of anti-labor governments and business leaders declaring all-out war against unions).
The decreased power of the labor movement has had real negative effects. As Thomas Kochan pointed out a couple of years ago:
From the end of world war ii through the mid 1970s, the real wages of American workers nearly doubled, moving up in tandem with the growth in productivity. The United States benefited from an implicit social contract: By working hard and contributing to productivity, profits, and economic growth, workers and their families could expect improved living standards, greater job security, and a secure and dignified retirement. This social contract broke down after 1980, as employees lost their bargaining power. Since then, productivity has grown more than 70 percent while real compensation of nonmanagerial workers has remained flat. Wages for the lowest-paid workers have collapsed even more than for average workers.

This decoupling of productivity and wages—dramatically illustrated in the above graph taken from this very good speech—is in part a direct effect of the decreased bargaining power of labor unions. Thus empowering labor unions and working people generally can help address what many (including a number of conservatives) agree is one of the key challenges of our time—the drastic income disparity between the wealthy and non-wealthy found in the United States and indeed throughout the world.

One of the key changes that needs to happen in order to reverse the decades-old decline of labor is passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which was was just introduced in the Congress and which will no doubt end up one of the most hotly debated legislative items of the next couple of years. EFCA is the priority for the American labor movement, and they are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to see it passed, but to date they have not necessarily done a bang-up job of explaining why it should pass.

While the Obama administration and the vast majority of congressional Democrats are on record supporting EFCA, there is growing concern that there will not be enough votes to see it through the Senate. The problem here is that Harry Reid will likely need 60 votes to break a GOP filibuster, and it's not at all clear that they will have that. For one thing, there are several conservative Democrats (particularly from the South, and particularly from Arkansas where Wal-Mart is based) who are highly reluctant to vote for EFCA.

Kos of Daily Kos suggests that the Dems don't need 60 supporters for the final bill, just 60 to vote for cloture which would kill a filibuster. After that happens several conservative Dems can vote against the final bill (maybe it would pass with 55 votes or so) and preserve face. But Josh Marshall points out that there are reasons to be skeptical of that view and right now I tend to agree with him.

In any case, the Democrats need one or two moderate Republicans to vote for cloture. The AFL-CIO has taken what might well end up being an extremely smart approach by offering full support to PA Republican Arlen Specter if he votes for EFCA in the Senate. That offer could well prove tempting to the moderate Specter who is up for re-election and faces an extremely difficult (and perhaps unwinnable) primary challenge from his right. Thus a possible tangential outcome of the EFCA fight is Senator Specter leaving the Republican party.

One of the major problems for EFCA supporters right now is that conservatives and corporate America are, as they have been for decades when it comes to labor issues, winning the message war. Business interests and the GOP are terrified of EFCA because it would almost certainly significantly increase the number of unionized workers—which is good for the country but bad for corporate interests and the Republican party. (Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott perhaps put it a little too bluntly when he said of EFCA, "We like driving the car, and we’re not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us.")

By Mike Konopacki. See more of his cartoons here.

Anti-labor folks like Newt Gingrich are doing a good job framing the issue, claiming—ludicrously—that EFCA (or "card check") is "a threat to workers’ rights" that represents "an enormous power grab by big labor bosses that would strip workers of their right to decide by private ballot whether to join a union, and their right to freely negotiate their contract." That misrepresentation is quickly and effectively debunked here and indeed by the above cartoon, but at the moment that conservative/corporate line on EFCA is getting much more play which is why conservative and moderate Democrats are feeling pressure to vote against it.

The other big problem is that it's far from clear whether the Obama administration is willing to go to the mattresses for this one, which in the end may be required. The fact that the very worker friendly Hilda Solis is running the Labor Department is extremely encouraging, but we don't know as yet how much pull she will have in this fight or within the administration generally. It will likely be tempting for Obama and his people—who frankly have bigger worries than union organizing right now—to hang back in the EFCA fight and avoid expending any political capital in order to force recalcitrant Dems to vote for it.

I think that would be a mistake both politically and in terms of good policy. Organized labor contributed enormously to Obama's electoral victory, and as In These Times notes, "if more voters belonged to a union, Obama would have won more decisively, even among white voters." If Obama does not do his best on EFCA, it's very likely that union support for his re-election will be far more tepid (it's almost impossible to exaggerate how important the measure is to the labor movement, though it seems they're willing to be somewhat patient).

But this issue goes well beyond immediate political considerations, and Obama needs to take the long view and recognize that in the end it's worth spending some political capital if it means 20 years from now the number of unionized workers is way up. He might not get much credit for it now (indeed he'll likely lose some popularity), but if Obama helps to revive the American labor movement by pushing through EFCA, folks will be thanking him fifteen or twenty years from now just as they thanked FDR (and the Democratic party) for decades after the Wagner Act was passed.

Obama has some cover because a significant number of economic and other experts are in favor of EFCA. This statement (pdf) by a gaggle of prominent economists (including Nobel winners like Robert Solow and Joe Stieglitz) comes out strongly in favor of the measure and Obama can and should cite that until the end of time. The statement also points out that most Americans would love to join a union if only they could.
A natural response of workers unable to improve their economic situation is to form unions to negotiate a fair share of the economy, and that desire is borne out by recent surveys. Millions of American workers—more than half of non-managers—have said they want a union at their work place. Yet only 7.5% of private sector workers are now represented by a union. In all of 2007, fewer than 60,000 workers won union status through government sanctioned elections.
As these economists note, the lack of unionization is due in no small measure to harsh and repressive tactics routinely employed by management to deter workers from supporting union representation—tactics which are easier to implement in union elections (which are far from free and fair) but more difficult to implement when employees can simply sign a card saying "I want a union." Coercion of pro-union workers happens all the time:
When faced with organizing campaigns: 25 percent of employers illegally fire pro-union workers; 51 percent of employers illegally threaten to close down worksites if the union prevails; and, 34 percent of employers coerce workers into opposing the union with bribes and favoritism.
Contrary to what its detractors argue, "card check" actually democratizes the process of forming unions by making it more difficult for management to wield a club over workers who want union representation. I'd really, really like to see Obama use the bully pulpit on this issue and start framing it in those terms, and if he doesn't it might be difficult to get this thing passed which would be extremely unfortunate.

Finally, one of the best arguments in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act comes from Regina Stewart, a member of Communication Workers of America Local 6507 in Arkansas who is speaking in the video below. She's been both a union and a non-union worker, and like most union members has concluded that the former is far more desirable. In the end it's really that simple.


  1. "Declension" sounds like what I do after I rush home from a trip to the taco stands. If you want to make it especially gross apply that image to the average member of the American labor movement.

  2. Jake, comments like that are hurting America. But if you could pick me up a couple of tacos while you're over there I would appreciate it.

  3. You need to do your research again. You are very skewed on this. Start over. EFCA will hurt America. Unions are killing America. Unions at one time were good and necessary. I liken them to a cast when you break your arm. Your arm hurts, it's broken and not functional. The cast protects and helps it to mend and heal. When your arm is better, you take it off. Our nation is like that. Unions are the cast. They helped fix a broken system. They are no longer necessary, due to MANY labor laws. RLA, NLRA, NLMRA, CSRA, Landrum Griffin, just to name a few. and to take away voters' rights to a secret ballot? Doesn't that go against our core values as Americans? EFCA and unions don't look out for all their employees.. only the ones who make noise. Michael D. Walker

  4. Thanks for posting, but unsurprisingly I strongly disagree with your point. It's a bit naive I think to assume that the labor laws of the United States make unions unnecessary, particularly when some of those laws, like Taft-Hartley, are explicitly anti-union in their orientation. Your position that unions are not needed at all is quite radical and one with which most Americans - even some who are not huge union fans - disagree. The idea that workers have no right, which is what you're really saying, to band together to fight for improved working conditions and compensation is quite extreme, and rather 19th century quite frankly.

    You don't really explain why you think unions are "killing America" so I can't reply to that, but I think you do have to deal with the fact that a period of increased union power - the few decades right after WWII - coincided with a period of relative prosperity in the U.S., whereas the decline of unions beginning in the 1970s and extending to today has coincided with a sharp increase in inequality and a decline in wages relative to increases in production. That's the issue here, and it's why we need more folks in unions, not less.

    And the oft repeated canard that EFCA takes away the secret ballot is simply untrue. We have card check right now (many don't seem to realize this). If 30% of union workers sign a card today, then an election must be held. EFCA would change that such that if over 50% of workers sign a card this is taken as a de facto vote for the union. But the secret ballot option is not removed. Even after 50% sign a card, anti-union employees can still get 30% of the workers to sign on to a petition demanding a secret-ballot election and then that will happen. Employees are still empowered to unionize (or not) as they so choose, it's just that there's another more direct way to do so which makes it more difficult for management to intimidate workers, and one which was regularly used in the past (and still is today incidentally - some employers simply choose to accept a union once 50% of employees sign a card).