In Arkansas Heat, 1,500 March for Free Choice Act and Senate Action

Art Levine

This weekend, Arkansas became Ground Zero in the fight over the Employee Free Choice Act, with national labor leaders joining over 1,000 workers and civil rights activists in rallies aimed at pressuring the state’s two moderate Democratic senators, Mark Pryor and (especially) Blanche Lincoln, to support the pro-worker legislation.

All this serves as a backdrop to new legislative developments in Washington: Senator Pryor has quietly assumed a growing behind-the-scenes role in the Senate by helping craft a potential compromise bill that, for now, has the union movement’s blessing. 

While the final shape of the new legislation still hasn’t been settled, it seems increasingly likely that that majority sign-up or card check” provision permitting union selection by a majority of workers who sign cards expressing support for a union is likely to be modified or possibly jettisoned, according to a knowledgeable union insider. 

But in return, the new filibuster-proof bill would offer stiff penalties on union-busting employers, swift and protected elections, and strong safeguards to promote good-faith bargaining in first contracts. 

With Minnesota Democrat Al Franken’s presence permitting (at least in theory) a 60-vote filibuster-proof Senate majority, the emerging bill could well prove to be the breakthrough that attracts enough moderate Democrats to either support the bill or at least vote for cloture to shut down any threatened filibuster. 

That would allow the modified bill to pass the Senate with the majority support that the legislation as introduced now enjoys – a prospect that is sure to enrage the Chamber of Commerce and Big Business interests that have demonized the legislation and opposed any compromise.

Says one veteran union activist about the evolving bill: This is very good legislation, even if it doesn’t end up having majority sign-up.” 

The grassroots activism in Arkansas and other states that’s lighting a fire under moderate senators culminated on Saturday with the march of nearly 1,500 people from Little Rock’s historic Civil Rights era Central High School to the State Capitol. The march sent the signal that Worker’s Rights Are Civil Rights.” 

That’s a message that resonates with Democrats seeking re-election in any state, especially in the South, given the importance of that region’s African-American constituency to Democrats. 

Some of the passion at the march can be glimpsed in this speech from AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka, the former United Mine Workers president and likely future president of the AFL-CIO:

Trumka hailed the moral courage of the Little Rock Nine who integrated the school in the late 1950s and noted that U.S Senators being urged to back the Employee Free Choice Act don’t have to face such a storm of hostility to do the right thing.” 

Today is the right time to make the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land and free every last worker,” he proclaimed. Political observers, including the bloggers at AFL-CIO Now, noted the praise Trumka gave Pryor: 

I want to thank Sen. [Mark] Pryor for his thoughtfulness, for his willingness to step up and do what’s right, and I want to encourage Sen. Blanche Lincoln to do what’s right – to do what’s right for working people, do what’s right for the middle class, do what’s right for our economy: let America’s workers, Arkansan workers, negotiate their way into the middle class rather than borrow their way into the middle class.

Unions, well aware of Pryor’s balancing act between powerful business interests and Democratic voters, have nonetheless embraced his emerging role as a moderate pro-labor Southern Democrat in a state with limited union clout. Yet Pryor is still willing to advance union goals in a state dominated by anti-union giants Wal-Mart and Tyson’s Chicken. As one pro-union observer says, He’s a certified Southern moderate who will give Blanche Lincoln the political cover to vote for cloture.” 

The complex political forces at work in shaping the legislation were outlined this weekend by an influential Arkansas political columnist, John Brummett of the Arkansas News:

Labor has been working intently with U.S. senators, not business people, on an incremental version.

If such an incremental proposal comes to pass, 60 votes will be needed to break a Republican filibuster. Labor will need all Democratic hands on board. We happen to have two Democratic senators in Arkansas and it happens that neither of them can be counted on to be on board.

One, Mark Pryor, a sometimes-mushy centrist willing to oblige labor in some business-acquiescent way, has been intimately involved in these new talks… Because he wants to prove the center isn’t always mushy, but sometimes cement-strong, Pryor would like to help facilitate a passable bill. It also would shore up his labor flank perhaps in perpetuity…

Organized labor is trying to define and market this issue as not merely one of union worker rights, but of civil rights and social justice. So today they’ll start at the internationally famous Central High to pay homage to the nine brave young black students who changed racial and educational history 52 years ago.

Those calls for justice still echo today. And on Saturday, in 100-degree heat, the Little Rock marchers protested oppression in another form: employers and union-busters determined to block the right to organize. No wonder they chanted, Hey, hey, ho, ho, union busters got to go!”:

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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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