The conventional wisdom among members of the Washington punditocracy is that the Employee Free Choice Act is essentially dead or doomed, in part because of the defections of moderate Senators Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln. And its chances, current thinking goes, aren't helped by the eagerness of Democratic-linked lobbying firms to cash in on opposition to the bill, as reported by Thomas Frank in The Wall Street Journal. But all that doom-saying doesn't take into account the ongoing grassroots efforts in support of the legislation, key Labor Department appointments -- or the spate of local media coverage. In fact, while the national media ignored the grass-roots efforts in states like Pennsylvania or dismissed it as a waste of time, thousands of Pennslvania workers and supporters continued to lobby Sen. Specter throughout April over the Employee Free Choice Act. And that could be one of the overlooked factors in his political conversion -- and a challenge he must face if he's to win a primary. As one union strategist says, "Every person who shows up to demonstrate, Specter wants to vote for him in a Democratic primary. Do you really think Arlen Specter's continuted opposition to labor law reform will go down well with the labor movement?" As the AFL-CIO's Stewart Acuff has pointed out, "No Democrat can win a statewide race without the support of the labor movement." Specter has said the bill needs fixing, and while he insists he'll stand by his opposition to the bill as written, in practice he'll likely play a role in shaping a compromise that reflects the union movement's goals and be enough to garner 60 votes -- including his. As Business Week reports today: Now Specter's party switch--coupled with the apparent victory of Minnesota Democrat Al Franken in that state's contested Senate election--would give the Democrats the necessary 60-vote supermajority needed to impose cloture and end Senate filibusters. However, on Apr. 28, Specter reiterated that he would retain his independent streak, especially as regards card check. "My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats than I have been for the Republicans…," Specter said in the statement announcing his move to the Democrats. "I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employee Free Choice (Card Check) will not change." …. While Specter has argued in the past that he's not ready for compromise, he comes from a pro-union state and he co-authored a law journal article exploring alternatives similar to some now on the table. AFL-CIO Legislative Affairs Director Bill Samuel, in a statement posted on the organization's Web site, said: "We look forward to continuing an open and honest debate with Senator Specter about the issues that are important to Pennsylvania and America. We move forward with the understanding that America's workers support elected officials based on their positions on issues that matter to working people, not political affiliations." Anne Mathias, director of research at Concept Capital's Washington Research Group, said Specter's switch "makes compromise on card check more likely. Labor has already backed down. What they want is easier unionization. It's not that they want the end to the secret elections. It's that they don't want employers to stall for six months, harass and intimidate the workers in the meantime." While the looming Republican primary challenge was the main reason he switched parties, he now has to face Democratic voters in a pro-labor state in a new way. And that's where the grass-roots efforts in the state and local media coverage make a difference. As the Wilkes-Barre area Citizens Voice reported on April 10th: WILKES-BARRE -- About 60 union members rallied across the street from U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter's Wilkes-Barre Boulevard office Thursday in support of the Employee Free Choice Act. Union members said the act will make it easier for workers to form a union to bargain with their employers for better wages, health care and job security during the tough economic times. The legislation also would help employees secure a contract in a reasonable time period and toughen penalties against employers who violate the law, they said. Many held signs reading, "Senator, we're watching and counting on you to support the Employee Free Choice Act" as they rallied in front of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO bus. Speaking over unionized workers' cheers, Greater Wilkes-Barre Labor Council President Sam Bianco loudly voiced his support for the act's passage. "This Employee Free Choice Act better go through," Bianco said. "We're not going to go any longer without a right to vote unions in where they should be voted in." Union members dropped off about 3,000 letters to Specter's office in the Stegmaier building Thursday. In all, they delivered about 17,000 letters to Specter's offices throughout the state, said Frank Snyder, an AFL-CIO representative who traveled to Wilkes-Barre from Pittsburgh. Union members also have rallied in Allentown and Harrisburg and have another rally scheduled Tuesday in Pittsburgh. They said they are disappointed Specter has changed his position on the act. Specter once was a co-sponsor of identical legislation. In June 2007, he was the only Republican to support the act by casting a favorable vote to bring the bill to the floor for debate when 48 Republicans voted against it and 50 Democratic senators voted for it. Such pieces run the gamut from broadcast and newspaper accounts of events to pro-union op-eds and editorials, and it's all gone on under the radar of the national media. Local editors, producers and reporters apparently didn't get the memo that read: TO: All Journalists FROM: Washington experts and columnists Re: The Employee Free Choice Act The bill is basically dead and doesn't have a chance. So don't bother to cover it. And who wants to read about labor unions or workers anyway? It's so boring. If you've got any questions, you can try to contact us through our syndication services, think tanks or TV networks, but don't count on us to get back to you. We've moved on to other things. But there's another reality on the ground, and it's reflected in the increasing pressure on Congress. As Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, pointed out in a column last week about his cross-country tour, from rallies in Pennsylvania to town hall meetings in Louisiana: Tens of thousands of working folks and their allies created the largest and deepest grassroots legislative blitz in American labor history. We gathered at almost 400 events to send the loudest possible message to the U.S. Senate: "We demand and expect you to pass the Employee Free Choice Act now." We made 100,000 phone calls and delivered 50,000 handwritten letters. All of this occurred over the last two weeks during the congressional spring recess. The American labor movement and corporate America are locked in the biggest, most high stakes legislative fight in two generations. The labor movement is determined to pass the Employee Free Choice Act to restore the freedom of workers to form unions and bargain collectively, to end 30 years of stagnant and declining wages, to strengthen and deepen the middle class and to end the corporate assault on workers when they try to form unions. Part of his effort was to give dozens of media interviews, and his views and those of other union leaders were covered in newspapers and TV shows in several states where key moderate Senators are based. It's not the front-page of the New York Times, obviously, but as a few of dozens of such stories show, they can help spur local interest and activism. Some samples: Arkansas Pine Bluff Commercial "Organized Labor Not Giving Up on the Employee Free Choice Act" Florida AFL-CIO Protests Bank of America in Miami CBS 4 Indiana The Times-Mail "Labor unions rally in Bloomington" Louisiana KTBS-ABC SHREVEPORT NEWS @ FIVE THOUSANDS OF WORKERS ACROSS NORTHWEST LOUISIANA SAY THEY WANT SUPPORT FOR THE EMPLOYEE FREE CHOICE ACT. AND TODAY, UNION REPRESENTATIVES OF 20-THOUSAND WORKERS IN NORTHWEST LOUISIANA PRESENTED THOUSANDS OF LETTERS OF SUPPORT TO SENATOR LANDRIEU'S SHREVEPORT OFFICE… Maine Portsmouth Herald "Union members rally for Free Choice Act" Bill would help streamline the union certification process in Maine Why does all this matter? As the Portsmouth Herald in Maine, the home state of two moderate Republican Senators Nancy Collins and Olympia Snowe, reported: ELIOT, Maine -- Local union members gathered Wednesday night to show their support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which many said would boost the rights of union employees nationwide. Advocates for the EFCA say it would streamline the union certification process, take elections for unions out of the hands of employers where it frequently languishes, and strengthen federal enforcement against employers who engage in unfair practices. Opponents' points of view, like those listed on the Web site for the Heritage Foundation, say it undermines workers' democratic rights by bypassing secret ballot union elections if a majority of workers sign authorization cards which create a union and increases penalties on employers but not unions, creating a described "chilling effect" on employer free speech. Paul O'Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, said at the Regatta Banquet and Conference Center he believes the strength of the middle class and the strength of unions are closely linked. He said that without the EFCA, employers can use the time between the signing of authorization cards and an election to intimidate employees who support the creation of the unions. "I believe that unions are the way to ensure workers' rights," O'Connor said. O'Connor and other speakers rejected the idea that the right for a secret ballot election would be lost, saying it was a misconception that spread quickly. A half dozen members of various unions in the region described what they characterized as workplace intimidation and harassment due to unions being formed. When their companies caught wind of the possible formation of unions, workers said operations were curtailed, workers were threatened with layoffs or fired, and equipment was shipped to other branches of companies without unions. Beyond the local coverage, you can also get a sense for the scope of the activism, from lobbying days with legislators to town hall meetings to weekly letter-writing sessions to Congress, on the AFL-CIO's website chronicling state activists' blogs and videos. Now the faith-based community is joining in with labor unions to press for the legislation, and on Monday, 40 leading faith-based organizations wrote a letter to Congress supporting the bill. Representatives from Catholic, Protestant (including Baptists), Jewish and Muslim organizations joined in the appeal. And in states like Maine and elsewhere, the voices of the clergy can make a difference in helping sway moderate Senators to back the Employee Free Choice Act. As Rev. Desi Larson explained why she recently lobbied Senator Olympia Snowe to support the bill (via AFL-CIO): "We all [religious leaders] base our support on the teachings of the scriptures that over and over says that we are to support the oppressed." With friends like Desi, corporate interests don't stand a chance at defeating the Employee Free Choice Act. The Rev. Larson's voice will no doubt help stir support for the legislation in Maine, but you won't be hearing her -- or others like her -- on Meet the Press or other political chat shows to challenge the corporate spoon-fed wisdom that this pro-worker bill can't pass this Congress. ************************** You can read more details about this in my column cross-posted to Huffington Post.
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.