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Thursday, Apr 23, 2009, 4:45 pm

With Friends Like These…Robert Reich’s “Mistakes” on Employee Free Choice Ac

By Art Levine
Hard as it may be to believe, a moderate pro-union liberal, Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, echoed the right-wing myth that the Employee Free Choice Act takes away the secret ballot while acting as the token liberal guest on CNBC, the network that brought you the economic meltdown. Reich's misinformation fits in well with a broader campaign by Democratic-linked loybbing firms to kill the bill, as reported by Thomas Frank in the Wall Street Journal, even if that wasn't Reich's intention.

But it's also a sad commentary on the need for the progressive movement to broaden its reach on behalf of the legislation -- and to overcome the mainstream media's barriers to telling the truth about the legislation. As reported by author Randy Shaw on the San Francisco alternative news website Beyond Chron:

Reich's comments on Kudlow's April 20 show reveal that he neither understands the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) nor is an effective advocate for its passage.

Kudlow & Company is part of CNBC's attempt to steal Republicans from FOX News, and its pundits are dominated by conservative, anti-union voices. In the show's April 20 debate on EFCA, Reich's opponent emphasized his outrage at EFCA's alleging depriving workers of a secret ballot.

Reich should have responded by saying that EFCA did nothing to abolish workers right to a secret ballot election. Reich should also have told viewers that workers have long joined unions through signing authorization cards, and that all EFCA does is prevent employers from vetoing this process.

What did Reich say instead? He agreed that it's wrong to abolish the secret ballot -- which EFCA does not do -- and said he shared his conservative opponent's objections to that provision.

So much for point-counterpoint.

EFCA backers were no doubt thrilled to hear the only liberal on CNBC mimic conservative falsehoods on employee free choice.

Unfortunately, Reich did not stop with misinforming CNBC viewers about secret ballots. Seeking agreement with his right-wing adversaries, he asked whether they could not agree that companies that violate union organizing rights should pay steeper fines.

Reich proposed quintupling the current fines to deter wrongful employer conduct. Where have we heard that idea as a substitute for real reform before?

From his former Clinton Administration colleague Lanny Davis, who represents Starbucks, Whole Food and Costco in opposing EFCA. Davis has been promoting increased fines wherever he goes, and it is not much of a leap to conclude that his viewpoint reached Robert Reich.

So we have a former Clinton Labor Secretary publicly promoting the anti-EFCA agenda of two of the nation's largest anti-union companies.


It looks like the growing grass-roots and progressive campaign on behalf of the legislation still has some work to do penetrate the Washington insider bubble that insulates even those pundits who should be strong, effective advocates for the legislation.

Instead of offering pro-business misinformation and dubious compromises, Reich might have been better off if he'd attended the kick-off on Capitol HIll Wednesday of a progressive campaign organized by Jobs for Justice that sees the bill as way for low-wage workers to enter the middle class. As reported by the AFL-CIO Now blog, author Barbara Ehrenreich and advocates for the working poor urged passage of the legislation as a way to help remedy our economic and workplace misery:

As Ehrenreich says, our nation's economic crisis can be traced back to declining conditions for the millions of workers at the mercy of bosses and whose wages and benefits aren't enough to get ahead.

We've been so unequal as a society that it's collapsing out from under us. Easy credit became a substitute for decent wages.

This is related to a sharp decline in bargaining power--workers have no power and no rights in the workplace. The Employee Free Choice Act, Ehrenreich says, is both a human rights measure and an economic stimulus measure.

Ai-Jen Poo, an advocate for domestic workers, says the home health aides, housekeepers and others she works with are enthusiastic about the Employee Free Choice Act. The conditions they face--long hours, low wages, poor treatment and a lack of security and stability on the job--are, unfortunately, spreading to the rest of the workforce and that's why we need the Employee Free Choice Act:

"Everyone in the community has a stake in the Employee Free Choice Act. Unions are the first line of defense against greed. We all have a stake in protecting the basic human right to collectively bargain--this is about long-term sustainability and survival for working people."


That sounds like a lesson that Robert Reich still needs to learn.

UPDATE: One reason that Democrats like Robert Reich may have spead misinformation -- perhaps accidentally -- about the Employee Free Choice Act could be that they and other pundits got their notions about the bill from a messaging blitz by well-connected Democratic lobbyists who have been working against the legislation. As Thomas Frank reported in the Wall Street Journal yesterday and as analyzed by the the Facing South magazine:

But it's important to step back a moment and ask how, after the rush of hope that surrounded the victory of Obama and Congressional Democrats -- backed by millions in labor contributions -- did we get to this point?

Many have pointed to the well-financed corporate opposition to the act -- a war chest which, among other things, has been used to fund dubious research warning that the labor bill would cost "thousands of jobs."

But Frank points to an important and under-reported piece of the story -- lobbying firms with strong ties to Democrats who are helping deep-six labor's agenda. After asking why Democrats seem treat labor like an ATM machine for campaign cash, only to turn their backs on them in Congress, Frank offers these devastating set of facts:

"[M]aybe it's just the money. Consider the lineup of lobbyists that retail giant Wal-Mart has assembled to make its case against EFCA. According to lobbying disclosure forms filed with the House and Senate we find that Wal-Mart's lobbyists include Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti (which employs former presidential candidate John Kerry's liaison to Congress during the 2004 campaign), a former legislative director for Rahm Emanuel, and a former assistant to Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln.

"Wal-Mart has also secured, according lobbying disclosure forms filed with Congress, the services of Tony Podesta, of the Podesta Group, one of the hottest lobby shops in Democratic D.C. Mr. Podesta is joined in pushing Wal-Mart's views on EFCA by a former assistant to Democrat Mark Pryor, the other senator from Arkansas. [FS note: The firm was co-founded with John Podesta, a lead Obama advisor, although he's no longer listed on the group's manifest.]

"The real standout on Wal-Mart's labor-issues roster, though, is D+P Creative Strategies, which wears its liberalism as proudly as last week's tax protestors did their three-cornered hats. According to its Web site, D+P "highlights partnership, shared benefits, and a commitment to advancing social justice goals." The disclosure form for its Wal-Mart EFCA activities lists a former assistant to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. The bio of its principal, Ingrid Duran, who is also listed as a Wal-Mart lobbyist, declares that the firm's mission is 'to increase the role of corporate, legislative and philanthropic efforts in addressing the concerns of Latinos, women, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) communities...'."

Labor has mobilized people and money in unprecedented amounts to get the Employee Free Choice Act passed. But at the end of the day, the money and connections of the corporate opposition -- including Democratic lobbyists -- may carry the day.


It's not over yet, of course, and labor leaders, backed by a massive grass-roots campaign, are sticking by their principles and taking a tougher tone with Democrats, even as they're open to reasonable compromises to hold moderate support the legislation. As Huffington Post's Sam Stein reports:

Whether out of despair, frustration, or the political calculus that more sheer aggression is needed, labor officials and progressives are taking a far more forceful tone in their advocacy for the Employee Free Choice Act.

Over the past few days, national and grassroots efforts have been launched in support of the union-backed legislation aimed not only at the Republican swing vote in the Senate, but at wavering Democrats and even the president. The strategy is in contrast to the campaign waged up to this point, when supporters of the bill -- which would allow for unions to more easily organize -- had largely tried to frame it in a more acceptable light for moderate Senators.

With several of those moderates now expressing reservations over EFCA, labor hands are expanding the scope of their efforts: calling on the wavering and even ostensibly pro-EFCA Democrats to stand with them.

"I wouldn't say [it is] so much getting tougher on 'where they stand' since they've been talking about it," said one union official, "but getting tougher on saying they need to stand with America's workers."

Even the White House is in the spotlight. Acknowledging the need to "hunt for a solution" for labor law reform this year, Service Employees International Union chief Andy Stern nevertheless did something a bit rare during a recent interview with the Washington Post: he subtly digged Barack Obama for not offering more help.


Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.

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