As Senators Huddle Over Bill, Pro-Labor Ads Pressure Wavering Dems

Art Levine

Senators, led by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, are stepping up the pace of negotiations for a version of the Employee Free Choice Act that could be introduced by next month, Roll Call and CQ reported this week. Conservative bloggers and pundits are alarmed, with the right-wingers at Red State quoting with dismay the new developments involving moderate Democrats: Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) indicated Wednesday that he will be ready to bring up the long-stalled Employee Free Choice Act next month, following weeks of negotiations with key stakeholders. "We're in meetings right now. I'm still hopeful that we can get something done," Harkin said. The Iowa Democrat has regularly huddled with Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) to try to hatch a compromise on the measure, known as "card check." On Tuesday, Harkin included AFL-CIO legislative director Bill Samuel in the talks--an indication that progress is being made. Excluded from the closed-door talks have been Democratic naysayers to the bill such as Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), whose support Harkin will need to avoid a filibuster… The conservative pundits are worried: "Polls show Specter is vulnerable to a real Democrat; he may need the foot soldiers the unions bring, and it's likely that whatever his public posture, he's working behind the scenes to deliver for labor." Meanwhile, unions are stepping up the pressure on wavering Democratic Senators, such as Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Union activists are using every strategic tool at their disposal, from grass-roots campaigns to tough ad campaigns. As Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the AFL-CIO president, noted in a recent column citing as one example the mounting support by black mayors in Arkansas: Both nationally and in targeted states, every element of the Democratic Party is stepping up to demand that Democratic Senators support the Employee Free Choice Act. Democratic mayors and state legislators have the small political organizations that keep their creators elected and are called on to deliver the energy, enthusiasm, and votes to elect Democrats statewide. Black elected officials and union leaders and activist are central to Democratic Get Out the Vote operations. Democrats don't win statewide elections without them. Some members of the U.S. Senate have made decisions to support the Employee Free Choice Act based on principle and values. Some are making political calculations. The AFL-CIO is painstakingly making the political calculations for Members of the Senate: Black elected officials, faith leaders, small businesses, community organizations, union members and activists. All are necessary for Democratic victories each November. All are calling for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. For instance, in Arkansas in recent weeks, there have been vigils and rallies outside the local offices of Sen. Blanche Lincoln, across-the-state media coverage, and thousands of hand-written letters delivered to both senators. As Fred McKenzie, an AFL-CIO communications staffer who has helped organize the mobilization in Arkansas, told me, " We want to let them know it's not just a labor bill, it's a bill for the worker and everyone in the community: small business owners,community leaders and faith leaders." Some of that passion for the legislation was captured in this speech by Acuff at a recent rally in front of Sen. Lincoln's Arkansas office: At least 300 small businesses in Arkansas alone have signed letters of support for the legislation, part of a broad coalition of a 1,000 businesses that realize the value to their bottom line of having workers in their communities able to buy what they offer -- and employees eager to share in the prosperity with their bosses and make a long-term commitment to a firm's productivity. One leading labor organization, SEIU, is taking a hard-line political approach to keeping up the pressure on Senate moderates. It's launched four ads targeting Senators Pryor, Lincoln, Jim Webb of Virginia, Arlen Specter and Louisiana Republican David Vitter. In some ways, these new ads are part of an emerging trend by some progressive activists, groups and commentators, such as, Chris Bowers of Open Left and William Greider in The Nation, urging liberals to increase the heat on "blue-dog" or centrist Democrats in Congress to push for a more progressive agenda on such issues as a public health insurance option and the banks bailout. As first reported by Sam Stein in The Huffington Post, the SEIU ad campaign links failure to support the legislation to siding with greedy corporations. Here's how it reaches out to Arkansas voters and pro-union activists (via the SEIU blog): In addition to putting out the four web videos, the SEIU is also launching email campaigns targeting the five senators, with much the same message and aim. The email campaign mirrored the below message sent to our Arkansas activists…. Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, stand with Arkansas' working people, not greedy CEOs. Last week hundreds of CEOs and other businesspeople flew to Washington, DC to pressure your senators. They want Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor to stand with the same greedy CEOs who wrecked our economy in the first place. We need you to fight back. We just produced this ad making it clear that Senators Lincoln and Pryor can't stand with CEOs. Write your message in support of working Arkansasans. Some of the biggest corporations in America are lining up to fight the working people of Arkansas. They're spending millions of dollars - some of it your tax dollars from the bailouts! - to stop corporations from being held accountable. They think that they can send in CEOs to make Senators Lincoln and Pryor forget about working people. With your help, we can make sure that doesn't happen. Tell Senators Lincoln and Pryor to stand with working families and support the Employee Free Choice Act: As the legislation is being shaped in the Senate, ads like this one below -- enhanced by the involvement of hundreds of thousands of workers and their allies in communities across the country -- could indeed make a difference in the ultimate outcome:

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.
Brandon Johnson
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