IT'S BEEN only a month since hundreds of thousands of union members and their families helped Barack Obama win key battleground states in the election. Yet, some labor supporters of the president-elect fear he may be backing away from a key campaign commitment to workers threatened by recession.
While running for office, Obama said he strongly backed the Employee Free Choice Act, a long-overdue labor law reform measure that should be part of his promised economic stimulus plan. However, when Obama recently introduced his top economic advisers and talked about steps to "jolt" the economy in January, the Act was not part of the package. More disturbing, his new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has declined to say whether the White House will support the Employee Free Choice Act.
The Act is fiercely opposed by big business because it would enable workers to unionize and negotiate first contracts more easily. The bill would amend the 73-year-old National Labor Relations Act so that private-sector employers have to bargain with their employees when a majority sign union authorization cards. Just as the Labor Relations Act did, as a centerpiece of the New Deal, the Employee Free Choice Act would encourage collective bargaining to raise workers' living standards and restore greater balance to labor-management relations. Beginning in the late 1930s, this federal labor policy helped create a new post-World War II American middle class.
Now, facing the worst financial crisis since the Depression, Democrats have an unparalleled opportunity to link labor law reform to their broader economic recovery efforts. As economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out, "If workers are able to form unions and get their share of productivity gains, it could once again put the country on a wage-driven growth path, instead of growth driven by unsustainable borrowing."
Tax cuts, home foreclosure protection, extended jobless benefits, and a public jobs program are all fine, the Act's supporters say. But expanded use of labor's traditional tool for "self help" (collective bargaining) is needed just as much (and doesn't require new federal outlays like the recent $700 billion bailout of Wall Street). With newly won bargaining rights, both hourly and salaried employees would gain a seat at the table, when management decisions are being made during the hard times ahead. Even amidst downsizing, they would have more say about layoffs, severance pay, and recall rights, not to mention pay, healthcare benefits, and the funding of retirement plans.
Business, of course, has a far different view of the Act's potential. Some critics say that NLRA-assisted union growth during the late 1930s actually prolonged the Depression. To kill the bill, business groups spent about $50 million on advertising in congressional races this fall.
Key Democratic challengers were elected anyway, giving labor law reformers a large majority in the House and 59 Democrat, Republican, and independent backers in the Senate. With the help of a single additional Republican vote for cloture (if not for the Act itself) or a Democratic win in the still-disputed contest for a Minnesota Senate seat, supporters can thwart any GOP filibuster attempt. Despite this progress on Capitol Hill and little evidence that workers' rights are unpopular among most Americans, labor must now overcome the president-elect's reluctance to antagonize business with legislation that lacks broader "bipartisan" support.
That's why the same grassroots political apparatus that helped elect Obama is now mobilizing to keep the pressure on him, post-inauguration.
Labor hopes to persuade the new administration that EFCA is a smart economic fix. Workers about to be - or already - crippled financially by the recession will be watching closely to see whether their plight merits the same helping hand so quickly extended to Wall Street.
Steve Early, a labor journalist and lawyer, is author of the forthcoming book "Embedded With Organized Labor."