As we all know, this November brings major opportunities for Senate pick-ups. And if we get enough Democrats in the Senate, there's a lot of legislation we might be able to get passed that seemed like pipe dreams just two years ago. That's precisely one of the reasons some business groups will be fighting tooth and nail to prevent Democrats from picking up Senate seats.
The Employee Free Choice Act is one of the most important such bills -- and practically every competitive Senate race is being targeted by anti-union groups with millions of dollars in funding from undisclosed sources:
The two groups, which will not disclose the sources of money behind their campaigns, may spend as much as a combined $50 million by November. The extent of the media effort has sent Democrats scrambling for ways to respond to what they call misleading advertisements without getting thrown off their own message. Party leaders are also sharply critical of the secrecy behind the spending.
"The fact that these expenditures are not only so large but are undisclosed is extremely troubling," said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who said the groups "are trying to influence the elections with millions of dollars that the public can’t trace."
These groups (which I've previously written about here) have already gone on the air with millions of dollars in ads against candidates whose names will be familiar to you: Jeanne Shaheen, Tom Allen, Al Franken, Mary Landrieu, Jeff Merkley, Mark Udall, Bruce Lunsford, Ronnie Musgrove.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is mobilizing its store managers and department supervisors around the country to warn that if Democrats win power in November, they'll likely change federal law to make it easier for workers to unionize companies -- including Wal-Mart.
In recent weeks, thousands of Wal-Mart store managers and department heads have been summoned to mandatory meetings at which the retailer stresses the downside for workers if stores were to be unionized.
The Wal-Mart human-resources managers who run the meetings don't specifically tell attendees how to vote in November's election, but make it clear that voting for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama would be tantamount to inviting unions in, according to Wal-Mart employees who attended gatherings in Maryland, Missouri and other states.
"The meeting leader said, 'I am not telling you how to vote, but if the Democrats win, this bill will pass and you won't have a vote on whether you want a union,'" said a Wal-Mart customer-service supervisor from Missouri. "I am not a stupid person. They were telling me how to vote," she said.
The AFL-CIO, Change to Win, American Rights at Work, and WakeUpWalMart subsequently filed an FEC complaint arguing that Wal-Mart's actions constituted illegal electioneering. But whatever the ruling from the FEC, there's no question that by going this close to the line of legality, Wal-Mart showed just how terrified they are of the Employee Free Choice Act.
So what's the fuss about? The main components of the Employee Free Choice Act include requiring certification of a union once a majority of employees in a workplace have signed up for the union. As laws are currently enforced, after a majority of employees have requested a union, employers can force an election. This may sound democratic enough, but in fact it allows employers to use their power over workers to campaign against the union, often harassing and firing union supporters in the process. As labor scholar Gordon Lafer writes:
For an election to be "free and fair," both sides must have equal access to media and the voters. But not under labor law. Anti-union managers are free to campaign to every employee, every day, throughout the day; but pro-union employees can campaign only on break time. Furthermore, management can post anti-union propaganda on bulletin boards and walls — while prohibiting pro-union employees from doing the same. By law, employers can force workers to attend mass anti-union propaganda events. Not only are pro-union employees not given equal time, but they can be forced to attend on condition that they not ask any questions. Recent data show that workers are forced to attend between five and 10 such one-sided meetings. If, during the 2004 presidential campaign, the Democrats could have forced every voter in America to watch Fahrenheit 9/11 (or if the Republicans could have forced everyone to watch the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth video), with no opportunity for response from the other side, none of us would have called this "democracy."
To put this in further context, under the system we have now 30% of employers illegally fire workers during union organization drives; 23% of workers in majority sign-up elections, the kind the EFCA would allow, "report management coercion to oppose the union"; and 46% report similar coercion in what Wal-Mart and their allies would like you to call "secret ballot" elections.
The bill also prevents employers from dragging out negotiations on a first union contract by creating provisions for mediation and arbitration, and strengthens penalties on employers who fire union supporters. Such firings are illegal, but the current penalties are too small to serve as effective deterrents -- if a fired worker wins their complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, a process that may take years, they are awarded the difference between what they ultimately earned in that time period and what they would have earned had they not been fired. That means that someone who is illegally fired and goes out and gets an equivalent job may get almost no money. There is therefore very little disincentive for employers to illegally fire union-supporting workers.
That the Employee Free Choice Act will afford workers greater freedom to join unions would doubtless be reason enough for Wal-Mart and other anti-worker corporations to oppose it. And it should be reason enough for us to support it. But if, despite being a Daily Kos reader, you're not a big fan of unions (and if that's the case, shame on you), I'll refer you to Trapper John's appeal to your baser interests:
I'm writing today for those breeds of Democrats who -- for whatever reason -- just don't care that much, or at least that passionately, about labor. I'm writing for folks like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln -- two good Democratic senators who have yet to commit to voting for EFCA. I don't want to appeal to your better angels and try to convince you that EFCA is a civil rights bill, or that its passage is a moral imperative. No -- my message is simple, and is an appeal to your baser instincts: Passing EFCA will get more Democrats elected.
That's right. Put aside, for the moment, the many, many reasons that passing EFCA makes sense from a policy perspective. EFCA is a political winner for Democrats. Why? Because EFCA will increase the number of union members in the US -- and union members (and, for that matter, non-members living in union households) are more likely to vote Democratic than non-members.
We have no way of knowing whether the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, the "Employee Freedom Action Committee," and other corporatists are more opposed to Democrats because they would pass the Employee Free Choice Act, producing more union members, or are more opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act because it would produce more Democrats. Whichever it is, we have to be prepared to counter their tens of millions of dollars of advertising and their employee intimidation aimed at defeating Democrats this November.