How the Democrats Blew the Last Big Labor Bill

Twelve years ago, Congress failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Will the PRO Act meet the same fate?

In These Times Editors

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) spoke at a press conference in support of the PRO Act on February 5, 2020, a day before it passed the House last year. The bill now faces grim prospects in the Senate for the second year in a row. SAMUEL CORUM / GETTY IMAGES

When the Democratic Party won Congress and the White House amid the 2008 Great Recession, the labor movement played an integral role in its victory. Even with a majority in Congress, however, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)—a bill to help workers form unions — failed to pass. 

Twelve years later, the Democrats again find themselves in control. On Tuesday, the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a stronger version of EFCA, with a 225-206 vote. Only five Republicans joined Democrats in pushing the PRO Act through. But the bill is unlikely to secure the necessary 60 votes in the narrowly-controlled Senate.

In February 2009, as Democratic majorities were just settling into Congress and the White House, David Moberg wrote this story, Ready to Rumble,” exploring the virulent opposition of corporate interests:

Corporate America is girded for battle. An employer offensive— costing upward of $100 million, according to union estimates — is being mobilized against [the Employee Free Choice Act]. … [The] U.S. Chamber of Commerce … has pledged $10 million toward the war against EFCA.

During [the 2008] election campaign, Wal-Mart told its supervisors that voting for Democrats would lead to passage of EFCA, which would be bad for the corporation. And Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus raged that corporate executives who did not contribute to endangered Republican Senate candidates should be shot.” …

Corporations and the right argue that EFCA will take away the secret ballot, let union thugs intimidate workers into joining unions and destroy businesses. But EFCA does not eliminate the option of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections, even though most unions would pursue majority sign-up when they can. EFCA simply gives the right to choose the method to workers and unions, not the employers.

And it is employers — not unions — that have intimidated workers. In 2007, nearly 30,000 workers suffered illegal employer retaliation for exercising their rights at work, roughly five times as many than in 1967, according to the NLRB. …

In forming a union, workers are simply voluntarily associating — as protected under federal and international human rights laws — in order to establish a collective voice to counterbalance the power of employers. They are not voting between two candidates: management and a union.

Further, the employer defense of secret ballots is a sham. Workers without a union don’t vote on anything,” says Tom Woodruff, director of Change to Win’s strategic organizing center. When was the last time non-union voters voted on a pay raise?” For that matter, when did corporations seek worker secret ballots on executive pay or offshoring jobs? …

Corporations and Republicans are attacking not just EFCA’s rule changes but unionism itself — even the notion that workers should be paid well. …

In an unsigned copy of a Dec. 10 [2008] memo circulated among Washington Republican insiders, conservative Republicans criticized auto industry aid as Democratic payoff to organized labor. They wrote, This is a precursor to card check and other items. Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor.”…

The attack will get nastier, and labor needs to respond by going on the offensive. We have to expose them,” Woodruff says. They brought us the disaster we’re in. … People voted for change. We have to organize and demand the change we voted for.”
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