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Wednesday, Jan 21, 2009, 11:28 pm

Surprise! Anti-Free Choice Act Washington Post Distorts Obama Interview on Unions

By Art Levine
It's not enough that supporters of the Employee Free Choice Act have to put up with corporate-fed lies in ads and media coverage about the bill taking away the secret ballot. What's being ignored in such recent coverage is the firm support among leading Democrats to introduce and support the Employee Free Choice Act as early as possible this session, Congressional staffers and union advocates tell In These Times, with the so-called "card check" or majority sign-up provision still serving as a centerpiece of the bill. "It remains a high priority, but its timing depends on the economic recovery package," one union lobbyist observes.

Yet in recounting a recent wide-ranging interview with then-President elect Obama, The Washington Post added to a raft of anti-union stories by cherry-picking one Obama quote about the potential impact of unionizing and the Employee Free Choice Act on his economic goals:

The president-elect also gave his support for legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize, but he said there may be other ways to achieve the same goal without angering businesses. And while many Democrats on Capitol Hill are eager to see a quick vote on that bill, he indicated no desire to rush into the contentious issue.

"If we're losing half a million jobs a month, then there are no jobs to unionize, so my focus first is on those key economic priority items I just mentioned," he said. "Let's see what the legislative docket looks like."


But a look at the full transcript shows a much stronger endorsement of unions and skepticism about the business community's arguments against the bill (via SEIU Blog):

President Obama said that one of the reasons wages have flatlined in the last decade is because American workers have had "very little leverage" and "that larger and larger shares of our productivity [have gone] to the top and not to the middle or the bottom." Here's what he said:

"Here's my basic principal that wages and incomes have flatlined over the last decade. That part of that has to do with forces that are beyond everybody's control: globalization, technology and so forth. Part of it has to do with workers have very little leverage and that larger and larger shares of our productivity go to the top and not to the middle or the bottom. I think unions serve an important role in that."


The President then swatted down one of the primary arguments being peddled by anti-union special interests and their media choirboys:

"You know, now if the business community's argument against the Employee Free Choice Act is simply that it will make it easier for people to join unions and we think that is damaging to the economy then they probably won't get too far with me."

In fact, quite the opposite is true, as a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute illustrates. Strengthening unions boosts the economy:

New research makes a solid case as to why the Employee Free Choice Act would be a "stimulus" that gets our economy back on track. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that if 5 million service workers join unions:

* 5 million workers would get a 22 percent raise on average, or an additional $7,000 a year;
* $34 billion in total new wages would flow into the economy;
* 900,000 jobs would be lifted above the poverty wage for a family of four ($10.22/hr); and
* Between 1.8 million and 3 million dependent children would share in these benefits.
* The economic impact on individuals would be about four times as large as the recent federal minimum wage increase, and allow nearly six times more in new wages to flow into the economy.


But The Washington Post, which surprised many liberals with its editorial support for most of the Iraq war, has now adopted a similar conservative/pseudo-pragmatic posture on the Employee Free Choice Act. So it's chosen to downplay Obama's support of unions in a way that helps further the right-wing meme that Employee Free Choice Act isn't going anywhere in Congress. The Post editorial board praised Obama for his "pragmatism" and wrote:

On the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow unions to organize by obtaining a majority of signatures from employees in a workplace rather than having to win secret-ballot elections, Mr. Obama signaled willingness to consider other mechanisms to address the concern that employers unfairly use the current process to intimidate workers not to join unions.


This is a distortion in at least two ways. It implies that the bill would do away with secret-ballot elections, when it just gives to the employees -- rather than to employers-- the decades-old option to select a majority sign-up procedure to recognize unions. And the language about the "concern" that employers "unfairly use" the current process downplays the widespread harassment and lawbreaking of employers to bust unions, Media Matters pointed out recently in a critique of another, related Post article:

A September 2000 study by Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University, examined more than 400 NLRB certification election campaigns in manufacturing plants between January 1, 1998, and December 31, 1999, and found that 25 percent of employers fired at least one worker for union activity and that 51 percent of employers told employees that their plant might close if workers unionized. In a December 2005 study of organizing campaigns in Chicago, Chirag Mehta and Nik Theodore of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago wrote: "Aided by a weak labor law system that fails to protect workers' rights under the law, employers manipulate the current process of establishing union representation in a manner that undemocratically gives them the power to significantly influence the outcome of union representation elections.....


It's little wonder, then, that President Obama continues to back the Employee Free Choice Act -- and that the editorial chatter about "compromise" alternative legislation isn't weakening the commitment of top Democratic legislators to introduce and support legislation this session with the majority sign-up provision intact, Congressional staffers say. Of course, a few Red State or conservative Democrats seem now a bit too willing, too early to compromise on majority sign-up, but that could change significantly once grass-roots lobbying by major union organizations kicks in to high gear.

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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