The Employee Free Choice Bill Battle Is Joined
By Alec MacGillis
Get ready for one of the nastiest fights of President Obama's still young first term. As supporters of the Employee Free Choice Act prepared to introduce it in the Senate, opponents of the labor rights bill came out in force.
The Chamber of Commerce brought nearly 200 Chamber members from around the country to Washington today to lobby the senators who will decide the bill's fate for a campaign they're billing a "Workforce Freedom Airlift."
They gathered this morning in the grand Hall of Flags in the Chamber's headquarters across from the White House, where national leaders of the chamber praised them as the "first Marines hitting the beach" to defeat a "job killer" of a bill that would violate American democracy and bring further ruin on a beleaguered economy.
"You've got to go up and tell them what will happen [if the bill passes], that no one is going to add a single job in the United States," Chamber president Thomas Donahue told the assembled. "Will I put a job here where it'll get unionized in an illegal way? No, I'll put it somewhere else."
The bill has two main elements. It would give workers the option of forming unions by getting a majority of workers to sign cards to join without having to hold a secret ballot election. (Current law leaves it up to employers to decide whether workers must hold an election or can organize via "card check.") And it mandates that -- if employers and workers cannot reach a contract within 120 days -- a government arbitrator intervene and set terms.
Workers say the first provision is needed because employers now intimidate workers in the run-up to elections, making them something other than a democratic vote, and that the second provision is needed because employers sometimes go years without agreeing to a contract. Employer groups counter that the first provision would expose workers to union intimidation and that the second one would allow the government to interfere in how they run their business.
There is majority support for the bill in both chambers of Congress, but labor supporters need 60 votes in the Senate to prevent a filibuster. That probably means the unions will need to hang onto the 52 votes the bill got when introduced under President Bush, and snagging support from every one of the eight Democrats added to the Senate in 2008, including Al Franken, if he is finally seated.
AFL-CIO lobbyist Bill Samuel said last week that the 60 votes were there, but several conservative Democrats -- including Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) and both Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas -- say they are very much on the fence. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the only Republican to side with labor on the previous vote, is also on the fence and facing pressure on the right from a likely primary challenge.
The Chamber leaders made clear to their troops today that they needed to demand a vote for a filibuster, and not settle for senators saying they would try to improve the bill, or vote against the bill when it comes for a final vote after getting past a filibuster.
"The only thing that stands between this Draconian, game-changing legislation and your workplace is the filibuster," said Steven Law, the chamber's general counsel. "It is critically important to be very clear: There is no compromise."
Donahue drove this point home: "On this deal... there's no compromise. There's no credit for amending the bill, the only credit anyone gets is for voting against cloture. Am I clear?"
The officials made their targets plain. Donahue said the chamber would "make sure the ladies in Maine are on the team," a reference to moderate Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who voted against the bill last time.
Randy Johnson, the chamber's point man on labor legislation, predicated that Specter might argue for amending the bill, but said that the chamber wouldn't stand for that. "If he says, 'Look, guys, you have to negotiate ... or I'll vote for it,' we'll say, 'fine,' to Senator Specter. 'Do what you want to do, we'll find other votes.'"
Hugh Keogh, president of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said he still held out hope of getting newly elected Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) to vote for a filibuster, saying that Warner has "has always had very strong business support and we intend to spend some of that on this."
Johnson cautioned against over-confidence, saying that an article on the Wall Street Journal's front page today about the doubts that six Democratic senators have about the bill may have been "a little optimistic" -- "even though I planted a lot of that story."
"This is the day we're going to put a stake through the heart of this bill," he said.
Labor supporters were sounding similar notes of bravado. Andy Stern, president of the Services Employees International Union, said in an interview that he remained confident that his side could find 60 votes to hold open debate in the Senate, even though it might take making some tweaks to the bill, which he said labor would be open to as long as the changes didn't go too far.
"We know we have an issue on rebuilding the middle class.... a debate about whether or not there's a way through labor policies to let workers rebuild the middle class," he said. "I'm confident that senators who have voted for debate will continue to vote to have a debate. American workers deserve a debate on this issue, and there are 59 Democrats who have all supported the bill in one form or another. I think we'll see a debate."
It is unclear just when the bill will be brought to the floor -- its supporters will have to wait until Franken is seated, at the very least. Law told the assembled Chamber members that it would keep bringing in members from around the country for lobbying visits as long as is needed. "We will doing this until the bill is dead," he said. "With your help, we're going to kill it."
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