Grassroots Labor Pressure on Specter: “He Knows When There’s a Fire Under His Ass”

Art Levine

Unflagging grassroots lobbying pressure on the newly-converted Democratic Senator, Arlen Specter, who previously said he couldn't support the bill, led Specter over the weekend to promise union activists he'd support a compromise version of the bill that would please them. It's a sharply different tone than he took after abandoning his earlier support for the legislation in recent months, both before and after he switched parties. State AFL-CIO leader, Bill George, summed up what's at stake for him: "I've got to tell you, Arlen Specter knows what pressure is," George said before Specter took the stage of a pro-Employee Free Choice Act rally, having invited himself to attend the night before. "He knows when there's a fire under his ass, and you build that fire." State activists, including faith leaders and other progressives joining union members in this strong pro-labor state, have generated since the early spring over 150,000 letters, faxes and phone calls to all of Specter's office in Washington and around the state. On top of that, over 400 small business leaders in Pennsylvania have signed up to back the bill, viewed as essential by supporters to reviving the middle-class and generating consumer spending on their businesses. AFL-CIO communications staffer Marty Marks, who has helped organize the campaign, says he was never deterred by the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom that the bill was dead: " I never accepted it for a moment. It's too important, too much of a movement and it's going forward. Something's going to happen, and we're not going to move on our core principles." He says of Specter: "My sense is that he's coming home," to his pro-labor, Democratic Party roots. At a rally for the Employee Free Choice Act that was held before Specter spoke to the state Democratic party, the Senator faced a mixed reaction, and the pressure was palpable (via PA2010): During his ten-minute remarks to a couple hundred union workers assembled outside the Westin Convention Center, Specter sought to focus attention on his past support for initiatives important to organized labor, and in what is becoming a familiar talking point, he touted his role in helping to pass President Obama's stimulus package. As workers chanted for him to "pass the vote," he said he was working on a compromise for the "card-check" bill. "I'm committed to find an answer which will satisfy you, and I'm optimistic we can do that," Specter said. But that wasn't good enough for many rank-and-file union members in the crowd--some groaned in displeasure, some booed, and at least one hurled an epithet at Specter. "You want my vote? I want yours!" John Heinlein, a retired ironworker, shouted repeatedly until Specter was forced to acknowledge him. Attempting to calm the crowd, Specter said: "I understand your job's on the line and I understand that my job's on the line. I understand that, and I believe that you'll be satisfied with my vote on this issue. And if you're not, I recognize your right in a free society to cast your vote as you choose." Later, after Specter left the makeshift stage to chants of "Free Choice Act," Heinlein told that Specter was on thin ice. "I voted for him in the past," Heinlein said. "But he can't fence-ride on this. If he wants our support, he has to vote for this. If he votes against this, he'll never get my vote again. While Specter has been courting Democratic leaders, a potential challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak, has been garnering strong support for his support for the Employee Free Choice Act: The contrast between Specter and his new Democratic colleagues was striking. Whereas labor leaders and Democratic members of Congress--including Specter's likely primary opponent, Congressman Joe Sestak (D-7)--took the stage to raucus applause, Specter was greeted far more cooly… In his brief remarks, Sestak was unequivocal in his support for "card-check," which he has sponsored in the past. "Are the facts there about worker intimidation? They are," he said. Clearly enjoying that union workers were approaching him to offer their thanks and support, Sestak told that a compromise could work for him, but only if it the unions support it. "IF we can get EFCA through, I'm here 100 percent," he said. To Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, there are clear political lessons to be drawn from this grass-roots mobilization, duplicated in states with key swing Senators, such as Arkansas and Maine: "What is happening now [with Specter] is the reason we didn't give up when most of the chattering class, pundits, observers and our opponents said the Employee Free Choice Act was dead. You play the whole game, run the whole campaign all the way through, implement your entire plan. We are gonna pass the Employee Free Choice Act because we have waged the most massive grassroots legislative campaign in the history of the American labor movement." He added, "When we win we will have won on the ground!"

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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.
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