Just as Karl Rove-style tactics didn't work against Barack Obama's campaign, union supporters see promising signs that the spate of negative TV and print ads from corporate front groups attacking the Employee Free Choice Act appear to be failing to sway the public. The main line of attack is that the proposed bill would supposedly take away the right to a secret ballot for workers; in fact, the bill amends the National Labor Relations Act to give workers the choice of whether to have a secret-ballot election or the majority sign-up approach for a union, also dubbed "card check" by some. The latest good news for backers of the bill came with new polling released Thursday by Hart Research Associates that found 78 percent of the public favors legislation that would make it easier for workers to bargain with their employers. Unlike some skewed polls offered before the election by business critics of the legislation, Hart's research, commissioned by the AFL-CIO, gave a fair description of its three key elements, as outlined in the memo available here, including majority sign-up. A striking 75% of the public favored the provision in the bill that "allows employees to have a union once a majority of employees in a workplace sign authorization cards indicating they want to form a union." That's the so-called "card check" option available to workers that's been widely painted in some conservative media outlets and deceptive ads as banning secret ballots. Millions were also spent during the election to attack Senate candidates who supported the legislation, and it just didn't work. In fact, as union advocates point out: Does the Employee Free Choice Act take away so-called secret ballot elections? No. If one-third of workers want to have an NLRB election at their workplace, they can still ask the federal government to hold an election. The Employee Free Choice Act simply gives them another option—majority sign-up. “Elections” may sound like the most democratic approach, but the NLRB process is nothing like any democratic elections in our society—presidential elections, for example—because one side has all the power. The employer controls the voters’ paychecks and livelihood, has unlimited access to speak against the union in the workplace while restricting pro-union speech and has the freedom to intimidate and coerce the voters. Once a majority of workers indicate they want a union by signing cards, the company should not be able to drag the process out for months as they can under a management-controlled election process. The will of the majority should be recognized. Even so, this right-wing meme about denying the secret ballot has been accepted as a fact by even some mainstream journalists. One reason is the deep pockets of the corporate groups, from the Chamber of Commerce to the National Federation of Independent Business, combining to spend at least $120 million to defeat the bill. For instance, the savvy spokesperson for the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, Rhonda Betz, offered some smooth-sounding soundbites to justify what are widely seen as misleading ads claiming the Employee Free Choice Act denies the secret ballot. (The organization is backed by the Chamber of Commerce, a retail trade organization anchored by Wal-Mart, and the building and construction industry.) "I would argue that because the legislation effectively takes away the secret ballot folks are having second thoughts about it," she says of the bill's progress in Congress, "and the sense of urgency has been pushed back." In truth, the cratering economy has added a new urgency to pro-labor legislation and the strong public support for the measure shows that the false attacks aren't working , union advocates, pollsters and most independent journalists contend. A New York Times editorial saying passage of the bill is urgently needed now to help raise wages has become the centerpiece of a new SEIU ad campaign. Alison Omens, an AFL-CIO spokesperson, observes, "Leaders in Congress and the public understand that without workers having the freedom to bargain collectively we can't rebuild the middle class. There is broad support and understanding of the need for legislation to allow workers to have a better life," especially since wages have been stagnant for at least a decade. At a briefing on the Hart polling on Thursday, the AFL-CIO's legislative director, Bill Samuel, added that the anti-Free Choice ads "haven't had much effect," while contending that the more people "think about the economy," the more support for the legislation grows. In fact, Esther Kaplan reinforces the importance of a strong labor movement to an economic and progressive recovery in an important new Nation article, "Can Labor Revive the American Dream?" Here's what she reports is at stake: At first glance, Employee Free Choice looks like little more than a technical fix. In addition to allowing unionizing through majority sign-up, it stiffens penalties for intimidating or firing union supporters and imposes arbitration when a company refuses to bargain a first contract. But as the leading corporate lobbies recognize, the bill could have far-reaching effects. By reviving unions, it could push up wages, realigning the broken economy so that company profits are spread beyond CEOs. It could help rein in corporate power and, perhaps most threatening to a business community that has enjoyed decades of deregulation, sustain a progressive majority in Washington in the years to come. If progressives aren't doing the math, conservatives are. "Unions don't spend money to elect Republicans," Senator John Ensign told a group of executives this past fall. "They spend money to elect Democrats. From our perspective, this would have devastating consequences." Throughout his run for president, Obama was explicit in his support for Employee Free Choice and his understanding of the forces arrayed against it. "If a majority of workers want a union, they should get a union; it's that simple," he told union members in Pennsylvania in April. "Let's stand up to the business lobby." Since his election, he's sent other friendly signals: supporting a factory takeover by pink-slipped glass workers in Chicago and tapping Representative Hilda Solis as labor secretary. While her predecessor stacked the labor department with experienced unionbusters and gutted regulations and workplace safety inspections, Solis has been a regular on Los Angeles picket lines and pushed a minimum-wage hike into law as a state legislator. Significantly, she made an impassioned plea from the House floor for the Employee Free Choice Act. But the business lobby Obama once railed against is now giving him a taste of its wares. The Chamber denounced the bill in op-eds as "payback" to "union bosses" that would signal the end of "workplace democracy" and the advent of "Soviet-style thuggery." All the big industry associations called press conferences to declare war. "This will be Armageddon," one top Chamber official said of the battle ahead. Another pointedly warned Obama against "picking a fight right away on a major, titanic clash." At first, it seemed that the Obama team was a bit cowed by the pressure and ambivalent about how hard they'd press for the legislation. As Kaplan notes,"At a November gathering of CEOs, Rahm Emanuel refused to answer a question about the bill, and that same month economic adviser Jennifer Granholm called it `divisive.' Obama recently restated his commitment to ending the `barriers and roadblocks' to unionization but avoided any reference to the bill itself." But union strategists are confident they'll be able to reach the 60 votes needed to break any GOP filibuster, by holding all Democrats and adding Sen. Arlen Specter, a past supporter of the bill. And now veteran political reporters are finding a new determination among Democratic leaders and the incoming Obama administration to press for the bill. In a tough-minded piece for Porfolio, Matthew Cooper writes, "Transition officials were divided on how aggressively and quickly Obama should move on the bill, but sources close to the campaign tell me he will push ahead." Howard Fineman of Newsweek reports this week (even if influenced by anti-union jargon): I know some more conservative Democrats who are warning Sen. Harry Reid, their Senate leader, not to take up the one piece of legislation that labor unions really want, and which they think they have already paid for. It's the "card check" bill that would allow rank-and-file representation elections to be held in public, by signing cards, and not by secret ballot—which, long ago, the unions saw as the enlightened approach to union organizing rights. Reid has not relented, however, and privately is vowing to bring the matter to a vote in the Senate this spring. Congressional leaders will be pushed by some of the largest drives seen in labor history, drawing at least $85 million in spending and other resources from SEIU alone, and a 50-state grass-roots and online campaign led by the AFL-CIO that's already garnered a million signatures in support of the bill. It's little wonder that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney proclaimed Thursday when the new polling numbers were released, "In today’s economic squeeze, workers need the freedom to bargain their way into the middle class more than ever. This new research confirms that the vast majority of Americans support workers’ freedom to form unions to improve their lives and support the Employee Free Choice Act, which is key to making our economy work for everyone.” It still remains to be seen whether the union movement and its progressive allies can rally enough support to overcome the corporate smear ads and spur Congress to pass the legislation, but so far, with widespread public backing for the bill and the new Congress already taking up fair pay for women legislation this week, the signs are strikingly positive.
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.