After Specter’s EFCA Flip-Flop: How Unions’ Grassroots Power Can Trump Joe the Plumber

Art Levine

Washington pundits and even some anxious progressives pronounced the Employee Free Choice Act virtually dead because of Sen. Arlen Specter's flip-flop on the bill last week. But the union movement is ramping up its largest grass-roots campaign ever, and quite willing to flex its political muscle on behalf of workers' rights. Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, points out the scope of the grass-roots campaign -- and also sends out hints that centrist and Blue Dog Democrats can't count on labor support anymore if they don't back this bill as they did in the previous Congress. Not only has the AFL-CIO alone helped generate 55,000 hand-written letters to legislators in Washington since January, but Acuff has observed: What grassroots American movement can in the span of one week run 57 letters to the editor in newspapers across America, send 14,000 handwritten letters to 10 U.S. Senators, and simultaneously plan 35 grassroots advocacy events with workers in 10 states? America's labor movement, the AFL-CIO, can. Now that the Employee Free Choice Act has been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate, organized labor's multi-state grassroots campaign is running at full throttle. Religious leader are speaking out for the Employee Free Choice Act to create fairness in the economy. Small business owners are sending letters, signing petitions, and testifying about the value to their business of having a union. Newly appointed Colorado Senator, Mike Bennet, says that at every campaign stop and town hall meeting, a worker asks his position on the Employee Free Choice Act. Acuff said in an interview, "We 're going to escalate our grass-roots campaign, and there's no doubt that our campaign has overwhelmed the [local grass-roots] campaign of Big Business. I think the number of contacts between workers and workers allies with members of the Senate far exceeds theirs." That's one reason union leaders aren't going to back down from the basic principles of the bill, or gut such key provisions as majority sign-up, even as some union strategist say they're potentially open to tweaking the legislation in ways that will keep Democrat support unified and could win over a few moderate Republicans. And that's why even the statement of Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday that she's looking for alternatives to the legislation doesn't doom the ultimate prospects for its passage, union activists say. (In addition, the media spin on her statement falsely implied that she was abandoning support for the legislation altogether -- although it's troubling that she seems to have bought into the right-wing message that unions are bad for the economy. The evidence is overwhelming, as recent reports from Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Economic Policy Institute show, that unionization is a tonic for a troubled economy, boosting consumer demand and potentially adding as much as $49 billion to the economy in added wages and salaries annually for newly unionized workers -- if union representation rates became as high as they were in the early 1980s, nearly 25%. And it's clear from EPI's careful new report that unionization simply doesn't cost businesses jobs or lead to closures, even for small businesses.) The Los Angeles Times also pointed to the unions' major goals for the legislation: "Unions say they are somewhat open to a compromise bill, but they insist that it must include provisions that make organizing easier, force companies to negotiate contracts quickly and increase penalties against employers that retaliate against union organizers." On two fronts late this week, Big Business and its allies concocte some new strategies to try to overcome the grass-roots advantage the labor movement apparently enjoys. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, for instance, business leaders threatened to halt a planned construction project that could employ 800 people in their area and, somehow, build it overseas if the Employee Free Choice Act passes. [My question: how's that going to work-- the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce members will relocate to China?] The AFL-CIO Now blog called it "economic terrorism," and Tula Connell makes her point clearly: Eau Claire County said a project was derailed because of the proposed Employee Free Choice Act. According to today's Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, the unnamed project would have brought a $50 million investment to Eau Claire County in the next five years, along with creating up to 800 full-time jobs, Brian Doudna, executive director of the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp., said in a news release Wednesday evening. Construction was expected to begin this year. The first employees were to begin work in early 2010, with about 100 new jobs being created. 'Proposed federal and state legislation, as shown by this company's decision, can impact location decisions and limit the private sector's ability to create quality jobs for Eau Claire area residents. This is especially disappointing given the condition of our current national, regional and local economies.' Yo, Brian: What's "disappointing" is the blackmail screaming out here. The threat by employers to destroy the community they theoretically are invested in just so those employers don't have to actually talk with workers across a bargaining table about what might make for a safe workplace, what they need to support their families and retire without working until they die. That's bad enough. But here's the kicker: `Doudna said if the bill is approved, the project will not occur--at least not in the U.S.' Blackmail, big time. In short, U.S. corporations are saying: Give us unlimited control over the lives of our workers, or we'll go to another nation where "human rights" is a dirty phrase and "workers' rights" even worse. To top it all off, a leading anti-labor front group, Americans for Prosperity, has announced it's recruited "Joe the Plumber" to campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act , starting with "rallies" in some Pennsylvania cities. Real, licensed, unionized plumbers, as opposed to the unlicensed fraud (and Snuggie model) who calls himself "Joe the Plumber," are angry at his efforts to pass him off as the legitimate voice of the working man. As Greg Sargent of The Washington Post's Plumline reported: I checked in with Rick Terven, the political and legislative director for The United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada. (Sorry, I couldn't resist sharing the full name.) He tore into his high-profile plumber colleague as follows: "Joe the plumber is selling out real plumbers. Right now, labor law is stacked against real plumbers. Real plumbers want and need the Employee Free Choice Act as a way to empower themselves to join a union, without fear of intimidation or losing their jobs. Joe the Plumber doesn't speak for real plumbers. You can read more about my take on the latest battles and strategies over the legislation here. And despite the worries among some progressives now, there's still good reason, thanks to grass-roots activism, to believe that Stewart Acuff's prediction about the bill could turn out to be right after all: "We'll pass The Employee Free Choice Act, and we'll restore the freedoms of workers to join unions and bargain collectively."

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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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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