Labor, allies resolve to line up 60 pro-EFCA votes in the Senate

A crowd of workers, labor leaders and community activists launched the most determined lobbying effort yet for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act at an April 22 Washington press conference.

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker stood in front of a crowded hall where she announced that labor will get 60 U.S. senators to shut off a planned GOP-led filibuster against the bill. Standing with her were noted author Barbara Ehrenreich, Jobs with Justice Director Sarita Gupta and President of the National Organization of Women Kim Gandy.

The message was labor and its allies are undaunted by reports that five Democratic senators now appear to be wavering in their support for the legislation.

They appear equally determined not to let other reports, including talk of “compromise,” dampen the enthusiasm of this latest stepped-up lobbying campaign.

One such report was Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, had said, in a discussion with the Washington Post’s editorial board, there could be changes in one key provision, majority sign-up, to get the bill passed.

A quote to that effect, attributed to Stern, appeared in one of the newspaper’s blogs, not in the Washington Post itself.

“We are on the hunt for a solution,” Stern was quoted as saying. “No matter what you do, you have to change the union recognition election process. Whether it’s majority sign-up or not, workers have to have a choice about having an election.

“The bill has to address fast elections, eliminating employer behavior and what happens if there are employer violations… We sort of have a bill that talks a lot about majority sign-up and nothing about the problems of the election system.”

AFSCME President Gerald McEntee disagreed strongly at a separate telephone press conference on April 23. “It is too early to compromise,” he said, adding “We’re asking for the president’s help and support on lobbying senators to break any filibuster.”

A source at AFSCME’s headquarters in the nation’s capital told the World that the unions are asking Obama to put pressure on both Colorado senators, both Arkansas senators and on Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the five “wavering” Democrats. Labor, civil rights and other organizations are also pursuing the senators with petitions, letter-writing campaigns, TV ads, and active lobbying efforts.

Sixty votes are needed to kill the GOP’s planned filibuster. The Democrats hold 58 seats, the GOP 41, with one vacant. When Al Franken, the winner of the election in Minnesota, is seated, the Democrats will have 59.

The one Republican who was a supporter and a co-sponsor of the bill, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, withdrew his support and says he will back a filibuster.

McEntee said there are other GOP senators worth pursuing but declined to name them.

Judging by what labor is doing around the country, it is safe to bet Maine’s two Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snow, are high on that list.

The Steelworks and other unions are campaigning in Maine and workers from that state are lobbying in Washington almost daily. Maine has lost 23,000 of its 81,000 factory jobs from 2000 to 2008. Whatever part of that astounding 28 percent job loss that has been replaced, consists mainly of lower-paid service jobs. All the more reason, workers say, that a bigger labor movement is needed in their state.

Holt-Baker, Ehrenreich, Gandy and others at the press conference all stressed that Employee Free Choice is indispensable, not just for workers’ right, but also to any economic recovery.

“Workers must be at the bargaining table when there is prosperity and even more so when there is pain,” Holt Baker said.

Ehrenreich said even “in the best of times, before the recession, the dot-com bust and 9/11, we still had a group called the working poor, and it was 25 percent of all full-time workers.”

Gandy said, “It is workers at the lowest end who need unions the most – minorities, women and low-income people – and they are the ones most likely to be frightened by the intimidation, firings, harassment and threats employers use against unions in organizing campaigns. Majority sign-up would eliminate the bosses’ ability to intimidate them in this way.”

Furthering the argument that the poor need unions the most, Heidi Hartmann of the Institute for Women’s Policy research said, “Income gains have been mostly at the top since 1973. The reasons are a decline in unionization, and the shift in the economy to retail and service, away from manufacturing. One fifth of service workers in retail make $10 an hour or less. A second fifth, in leisure and hospitality, make comparable wages.”

Hatmann called for “unionization, in combination with a re-emphasis on manufacturing – only this time making ‘green’ goods such as solar panels, hybrid cars and power-generating huge windmills. This will lead to higher wages and a re-invigorated economy.”