American Labor in Crisis (July 9, 2007)

How Labor Bungled Its ‘Free Choice’ Campaign;
What if EFCA Is a Lost Cause, even after 2008?

(The first of five articles.)

By Harry Kelber

There were two puzzling features about labor’s campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that were almost totally ignored by the AFL-CIO and Chance to Win, that may have contributed a great deal to its defeat.

The first was the undeniable fact that all the participants in the campaign to give unorganized workers the right to join a union are already in unions. Today, we have living proof that some 17 million workers have been able to become union members. And so had millions of workers, including women and minorities, in previous generations since 1935, when the National Labor Relations board was first enacted.

Were employers friendly in past years to having their workers join unions? On the contrary. Many of the nation’s giant corporations hired spy agencies to root out pro-union workers and used strong-armed thugs and gangsters to attack picket lines with brass-knuckled fists, baseball bats, shotguns and tear gas. That did not stop tens of thousands of workers from joining unions, even in the grim years of the 1930s.

The second surprising fact is that the 60 million workers who say they’d like to join a union have shown no public interest in the Employee Free Choice Act, which the AFL-CIO sponsored for their benefit. They have made no effort to persuade Congress that they are unjustly being denied a basic worker’s right. They have not organized rallies prepared petitions, issued statements or taken any other action in support of the EFCA. There must be a reason why so many millions are silent, and it’s not because they are all terribly scared of their bosses.

For the last four years, the AFL-CIO and the CtW have spent millions of dollars and substantial staff and resources in a non-stop campaign to convince Congress that they can’t organize non-union workers unless it passes tough legislation to restrain employers from harassing and firing workers who want to join a union. It’s a theme that labor leaders have repeated incessantly, with depressing effect on the unorganized.

Here is what Stewart Acuff, the AFL-CIO’s Director of Organizing, has to say on the subject: “We’ve lost the right to organize in this country. American workers have lost any effective right to organize and bargain collectively.”

Most unions have either downplayed or abandoned their major organizing plans, waiting for a favorable response from Congress. But they haven’t considered the consequences if Congress fails to act. Will that mean an end to real organizing? A convenient cop out for inactive labor leaders?

Labor Based Its Strategy on a Political Gamble‹-and Lost

The strategy that national labor leaders adopted for securing passage of the Employee Free Choice Act was simple and seemingly logical. Now that the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress (largely due to the votes of union households) labor was entitled to a political payoff. The Democrats agreed to labor’s price: they would work for passage of bills to raise the minimum wage and the Employee Free Choice Act.

The Democrats appeared to carry out their part of the bargain. They won an increase in the minimum wage through a rider to an appropriation bill for additional funds for the war in Iraq. In the House, the Democrats gained the approval of the “Free Choice” measure by a substantial majority, 241 to 186. But in the Senate, while they were able to win a slim majority, 51-48, for EFCA, they could not muster the votes of 60 senators that were required under the cloture rule for an up-and-down vote on the measure.

Besides, President Bush had promised to veto EFCA, if by some miracle, it had been approved by Congress... This meant that the Employee Free Choice Act was effectively dead, at least until the new Congress met after the 2008 elections.

Labor’s reaction to the EFCA defeat was almost exclusively up-beat. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney enthusiastically called it a “watershed achievement” and “an important step toward shoring up our nation’s struggling middle class.” Equally ecstatic was the comment of Anna Burger, Chair of Choice to Win: “The historic vote is proof that momentum is building up to win real change for America¹s workers. Today’s vote is a step toward creating a new American Dream for working people.”

Despite the euphoria and self-congratulation by national labor leaders, hardly any of them took note of the grim fact, that for the next 17 months, until at least after the 2008 election, employers, without restraint, could continue their harassment and discharge of pro-union workers . And what would unions do in the meantime?

Labor’s Dilemma: What to Do About ‘Free Choice’?

The labor movement has a difficult, risky decision to make about the future of the Employee Free Choice Act. One option is to hope that the Democrats capture the White House (a good possibility) and they can elect nine new Senators who will vote for EFCA (an admittedly long shot).

It will be very difficult to arouse renewed interest in EFCA. The voting public will be focusing on three major issues: health care, immigration and the war in Iraq. These are also the issues that the Democrats will be campaigning on In the 2008 elections, people are not going to pay much attention to the issue of a worker’s right to join a union, as important as it is Even unorganized workers, who stand most to benefit from EFCA, have shown little public interest in the fight for its passage. It’s not clear what unions can do to win a broader, more involved audience.

So labor faces a critical dilemma: Should it continue to make Employee Free Choice Act a high-priority issue in 2008 and the years beyond on the gamble that it could eventually secure its passage? If yes, then what steps must the labor movement take to give it a fighting chance for success?

What about those who feel that a long, drawn out campaign for EFCA would drain labor’s resources and sap its energies, while neglecting the needs of working families? What alternatives do they suggest?

Every labor leader in the AFL-CIO and Change to Win must speak out clearly and frankly on this issue that may determine the future of t

Article 2 of “American Labor in Crisis” will appear on Monday, July 16, 2007. Also check our Web site: