Maines senate race in play

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LEWISTON, Maine — The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) has become a prime point of controversy in a hard-fought contest as Democratic Representative Tom Allen challenges Republican Senator Susan Collins for the Senate seat she has held since 1996.

Allen co-sponsored the bill that passed the House of Representatives last year only to be blocked in the Senate with Collins’ support. Should the Democrats gain a filibuster-proof Senate majority in November, quick reintroduction and passage of the EFCA is a near certainty. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama strongly supports the EFCA.

The legislation would amend the National Labor Relations Act by removing the employer prerogative of relying on ballots instead of on cards signed by workers to show they want union representation, thereby forestalling employers’ anti-union maneuvers and speeding the approval process. The measure would also increase penalties on companies for unfair labor practices.

Touring Maine last week with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Allen downplayed the venom evident in a corporate-promoted assault on his support for the EFCA. Speaking Sept. 6 to community activists, union members and local political leaders at the University of Southern Maine campus here, both men underscored Allen’s support for working people, expressed in his opposition to the Bush administration’s so-called free trade treaties and in his advocacy for health care for all, heating oil assistance, access to education and the Employee Free Choice Act. Allen’s vote against authorizing Bush to invade Iraq and his work to end U.S. involvement there are well known.

Brown emphasized Maine’s reputation for grassroots activism while pointing to Susan Collins’ voting record of 80 percent support for George W. Bush.

Last month advertisements began to flood Maine newspapers and television castigating the EFCA for its alleged potential to deprive Maine workers of their right to a secret ballot. A two hour union-sponsored protest demonstration greeted a bus filled with a bevy of loud EFCA antagonists and loaded with giveaways when it stopped in Portland during a statewide tour.

Prominent among national organizations backing the Maine slander offensive is the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, underwritten by corporations, the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Retail Federation. Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Randel Johnson told the New York Times, “We’ve targeted [the Employee Free Choice Act] as our No. 1 or No. 2 priority to defeat.”

Some of the ads come from the Center for Union Facts, famous, the American Rights at Work web site says, for “playing loose and dirty with the facts” under the auspices of “notorious industry lobbyist and PR flack Richard Berman.”

Maine AFL-CIO political director Matt Schlobohm explained that “Corporate America has opened unlimited bank accounts to defeat the Employee Free Choice Act,” adding that in Maine, “Endless amounts of money are available to defeat the bill, including defeating candidates.”

Allen aide Carol Andrews reported that as of late August, “they [had spent] upwards of $800,000 bashing Tom Allen, unions and Maine working people.” The scurrilous tone of the ads was epitomized by portrayals of union leaders as manipulative in the fashion of urban mobsters. Andrews rejects the demonization of Maine union workers: “They are not organized crime.” Sen. Collins’ office denied complicity with the ads.

In Lewiston, Tom Allen characterized the Collins campaign’s claims to support workers’ rights as “utter baloney.” Elsewhere, he observed, “We have to make it easier for people to organize in the workplace because the union movement needs support; this is the path to better jobs, benefits and higher pay.” Polls currently show Allen running behind incumbent Collins.

Cynthia Phinney, business manager for IBEW Local 1837 in Lewiston, agrees the stakes in this Senate race are as high for the nation as for Maine. “The Employee Free Choice Act is going to restore balance and equity to the situation for workers in our country who want to form a union in their workplace … the process we have right now is not a democracy,” Phinney said. She added, “We have a choice of Barack Obama with a 98 percent labor voting record versus John McCain who has a 16 percent labor voting record.”

atwhit@roadrunner.com