LaborTalk for January 21, 2011

AFL-CIO's Faulty Strategy Doomed
Vote on Employee Free Choice Act

By Harry Kelber

In its expensive, high priority campaign to get Congress to approve the Employee Free Choice Act, the AFL-CIO made important strategic blunders that virtually assured that EFCA would end up as still-born legislation.

Its initial mistake was to inform members of Congress that unless it received government assistance by passing EFCA, it could not organize millions of workers who wanted to join unions, but were afraid that their boss would take revenge and probably fire them.

To make their case, union leaders displayed workers who had been fired for trying to join a union. They publicized the many ways that employers could intimidate their workers, from the minute they were hired and throughout their day at the workplace.

The net effect of the campaign was to display unions as weak and no match for powerful corporate employers without government assistance. Tons of leaflets were distributed and countless rallies were held to convey this twin image of corporate power and labor feebleness. (One wonders what the AFL-CIO's self-abasement had on unorganized workers.)

The net effect of the campaign was to brand the AFL-CIO as a "special interest," seeking special favors from Congress. (Unions could have won wide public support by making the moral case that to deny workers the right to join a union was discriminatory and undemocratic.)

The manner in which the EFCA campaign was conducted had its serious flaws. The unions relied almost entirely on a blizzard of e-mails and a steady stream of phone calls to persuade Congress to enact EFCA. There was relatively little personal contact between union members and legislators or any overt action that might have had a positive effect.

The campaign was run by AFL-CIO union members, with hardly any evidence that unorganized workers were involved. Where were the 50 million workers who said they would like to join a union? Why weren't they lobbying Congress?

The Unions Miscalculated on a Political Payoff

The AFL-CIO and Change-to-Win claimed that they had been a major contributor to President Obama's election as President by gaining majorities in six industrial states that he needed to win. They thought that, in gratitude, the President would see to it that EFCA was passed in his first hundred days in office.

What the labor leaders failed to understand was that Obama had no intention of risking a bitter fight with the corporate community at the start of his presidency. While he announced that he favored EFCA, he was hoping that the issue could be settled by a compromise between the unions and employers represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Obama had decided that he wanted a health-care law to be his first and most important legislation, and he persuaded labor leaders to support his comprehensive overhaul of the nation's health-care system, with the understanding that EFCA would be the next item on his legislative agenda.

In fact, the House passed the EFCA bill by a substantial majority, but it failed to survive a threatened filibuster by Republicans in the Senate. While EFCA seemed a life-or-death issue with the unions, the public had other problems in mind: the economic crisis, high unemployment, huge federal and state budget deficits and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress put EFCA on the back burner.

The unions received a shattering blow when "card-check" -the most essential feature of EFCA--was removed from the bill without a massive protest from the unions. Under card-check, a union could be certified by the Labor Board to bargain with an employer if a majority of workers in a bargaining unit voted for it. EFCA also required employers and unions to accept binding arbitration if no agreement was reached within 120 days.

When the Republicans gained control of the House and seven seats in the Senate, that, realistically, marked the end of EFCA, after a three-year campaign that cost millions of dollars and an incredible amount of resources and staff time.

It is manifestly unfair to deny workers the right to join unions without intimidation, a right that is enjoyed by bankers, politicians, corporate executives and every segment of society, with the possible exception of jailed criminals. Isn't it time for the 112th Congress to rectify this gross injustice?-Harry Kelber,

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