Labor law overhaul top priority for Americas unions

At post-election news conferences Nov. 5 leaders of the nation’s two huge labor federations, the AFL-CIO and Change-to-Win, told reporters that the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is at the top of their agenda and that unions will work with the incoming Obama administration and with Congress to ensure its passage.

“In an economy that gives corporations far too much power, a union card remains the single best ticket into the middle class,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney declared.

“With a president-elect who is a co-sponsor of the EFCA, with a vice president-elect who is a co-sponsor of the EFCA…with the gains in the House and Senate, the prospects of passage have increased dramatically,” added Rich Trumka, the federation’s secretary-treasurer.

On Nov. 6, just two days after the election, a new Hart poll showed sweeping support for the EFCA despite multi-million dollar attack campaigns against the bill mounted by various corporate interests.

Despite an unprecedented $20 million spent in nine battleground states to defeat candidates who support the EFCA, voters overwhelmingly backed candidates who support the measure. A poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates commissioned by American Rights at Work shows that anti-union advertising was among the least important factors in determining voters’ choices for the Senate, and further indicated that they continue to support making it easier for workers to join unions.

The poll reveals that nearly two-thirds (60 percent) of voters believe even in these tough economic times, it is important to pass the EFCA, and nearly one-third (30 percent) of voters believe it should be a priority for Congress.

Labor leaders warned at their post election press conferences, however, that the effort to pass the bill will not be without roadblocks.

Passage will require a filibuster-proof 60 vote super majority in the Senate. The law was passed by the House last year but derailed in the Senate in a filibuster led by Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a right-winger who was re-elected Nov.4 in Kentucky.

Democrats, along with two independents who caucus with them, now number 57, three below the filibuster-proof super majority. To stop a filibuster three Republicans would have to join them.

The possibility remains that the Democratic Senate majority can still grow to 60 because three races remain unsettled. One race, in Georgia, is headed for a runoff in December. Georgia law says a senator can be elected only if he or she wins an absolute majority of the vote. Third party candidates prevented both the right-wing Republican incumbent, Saxby Chambliss and the liberal Democratic candidate, Jim Martin, from achieving that majority.

Two other races, in Minnesota and Alaska, are too close to call.

Another problem, according to union sources, is that it might be necessary for the incoming Obama administration to deal first with other aspects of the continuing economic disaster. AFL-CIO leaders have said privately that they have not yet discussed scheduling of the bill with Obama’s team and that, until now, the priority for labor has been to help guarantee Obama’s election.

The EFCA would allow workers to form a union as soon as a majority at a work site sign pledge cards indicating their desire to be represented by the union. This would short circuit the prolonged company-dominated campaigns of harassment and firings that often now precede elections that companies can call for at workplaces where employees express a desire to unionize.

The EFCA would also sharply increase penalties, up to $20,000 per violation, for those who violate labor laws and would make it easier to get court orders against labor law breakers. The law would also mandate binding arbitration between unions and employers if they cannot reach agreement on an initial contract within 120 days of starting talks.

Union leaders say they are not too worried about reaching the so-called “magic” number of 60 in the Senate.

Trumka, Sweeney and others said the prospects of passage will change and improve because two of its supporters will be in the White House. They will replace George Bush, the leaders noted, who hated the law and the unions that support it.

“For the first time in eight years we have a president who supports workers’ rights,” AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman said at the press conference.

When asked if there were any possible compromises labor might make to pass the EFCA Change to Win Chair Anna Burger said, “No!”

“We must counter-balance corporate power. The gap between the wealthy and everyone else has grown from a gulf to a chasm under Bush,” Sweeney said. “We cannot rebuild the middle class and ensure that economic growth is shared unless we give working people back the freedom to improve their lives through unions and bargain for better wages and benefits.”

The Chamber of Commerce and other business groups spent $60 million this year in an anti-EFCA drive in states where Democrats were challenging Republican opponents of the measure. The campaign flopped in at least five states where pro-labor senators were elected.

Trumka said that, as far as labor is concerned, every possible way to get the legislation through Congress will be on the table. “There are an infinite number of strategies to get it passed and each one of them will have our complete attention,” he said.