The EFCA Battle is Joined

Unions and allies are fighting the anti-Employee Free Choice Act “Meltdown Lobby” with an IRS complaint and grassroots campaigns.

Art Levine

Republican leaders and their conservative big business allies, including the Chamber of Commerce, have gone after workers’ rights with a new set of misleading attacks targeting the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

President Obama’s call for change and economic recovery can’t be fully realized until workers finally achieve their long-promised right to bargain for a better standard of living with their employers.

There’s no legislative gambit, brazen lie, propaganda campaign or skewed data – all in the service of legal and illegal union-busting – they’re not willing to try out. Last week, these included proposed new legislation promoting the Big Lie that EFCA takes away the secret ballot; a Newt Gingrich-led PR campaign (complete with a free Wii); and spurious reports” targeting the proposed law, which sees to create a level playing field for workers.

The union movement’s leaders and allies fought back on a few fronts. Leaders of a group of 39 of the nation’s top economists released a high-profile statement on why protecting union rights is so vital to restoring the middle-class –and then found their pro-union views welcomed at a meeting with top members of President Obama’s economic team. Union activists sent out a mass emailing to millions of supporters in the AFL-CIO-allied Working Families organization, urging donations to combat the anti-union ad propaganda blitz.

And unions brought an aggressive complaint to the IRS against nonprofit corporate front groups led by Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus and anti-union flack Rick Berman (a/​k/​a Dr. Evil”) for allegedly illegally soliciting donations for political candidates opposed to the EFCA. Marcus and Berman led an October conference call organized by Bank of America, during which corporate executives were asked to donate to anti-EFCA politicians.

The leaders of the two biggest union organizations – the AFL-CIO and Change to Win – didn’t pull their punches in filing the complaint. Bernie Marcus and Rick Berman are no-holds-barred leaders of a network of people and organizations that despise worker rights and unions,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Now, they are violating their organizations’ tax-exempt status through partisan political appeals. We call on the IRS to call them to account.”

And Change to Win Chair Anna Burger said: America’s working families voted for change in November because of greedy corporate CEOs who will do and say almost anything to deny workers a fair share of the profits created by their hard work. We filed this complaint with the IRS to stop Marcus and Berman from violating the law in their campaign against workers and their families.”

(The complaint to the IRS, though, is hardly guaranteed to succeed, given all the loopholes in campaign fundraising laws. Berman has told The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein, who broke the original story, that there was nothing illegal or improper about the call since, he said, there was nothing on that call that spoke to funneling money to anybody.”)

More important than any such legal strategy is organizing to tell the worker’s side of the story. Marc Laitin, the AFL-CIO online organizer, reached out to the over 2 million members of Working America, a pro-worker organization that enables those who may be blocked from joining unions to still support progressive labor causes. In a toughly worded email, he wrote that corporate front groups are spending millions – spewing lies and distortions to block workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life.”

These anti-union forces include not just corporate front groups but an array of GOP politicians, business lobbyists and smooth-talking Republican strategists” eager to echo union-bashing falsehoods and talking points – and an all-too-willing media blindly accepting their spin. 

Yet these corporate mouthpieces at least deserve credit for their sheer chutzpah and shamelessness. Their talking points are straight from the George Orwell playbook –all taken from some Bizarro World where unions take away rights, and workers’ pay and living standards have improved in the last decade under the pro-business, laissez-faire policies championed by big business, Republicans and the Bush Administration.

In short, we’re now supposed to listen to the same folks who brought you the tax giveaways to the rich, financial deregulation and weakened unions that helped cause a worldwide collapse of the economy. These same zealots who make up what might be dubbed the Meltdown Lobby” have now made defeating workers’ right to organize a rallying cry in their fight against Obama’s plans to revive the economy they destroyed. 

It’s no wonder that workers, responsible political leaders and voters are looking for major changes in the way our economy and government runs. We’ve seen that a weak-union, high inequality, deregulation economy doesn’t produce growth, it produces disaster, and we need to do something different. Trusting the Wall Street guys didn’t work,” Harvard economist Richard Freeman said in a briefing last Wednesday to Hill staffers. 

Freeman is part of a group of 39 leading economists organized by the Economic Policy Institute that unveiled an ad Wednesday in The Washington Post calling for passage of EFCA. Some key reasons: the need to strengthen workers’ organizing rights so they can bargain for higher wages that can help revive the economy, and to remedy the imbalance of power and wages in the workplace that have let corporations run amok.

In interviews and in their briefings, Richard Freeman and other top economists also emphasized how unions can serve as a vital bulwark in the workplace against the untrammeled corporate power and greed that have brought the economy to its knees. Freeman told this reporter, We can’t run the economy the way we have, period.” He should know: He is one of the world’s foremost labor economists and the director of the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research’s labor studies program. 

Freeman emphasized that by empowering workers and unions now we don’t have to wait for the wholesale transformation of the greed-oriented corporate culture and lax federal oversight that President Obama wants to reform. To illustrate a corrupt chief executive’s point of view, he says, If I can grab for myself $100 million, I’m going to break a lot of rules, cooking the books a bit.” Unions could be a force to challenge such illegalities and inequality, he says, in part because they can look at a company’s books during negotiations. In sum, unions can force employers to invest in their workers and the long-term good of the company, rather than the short-term personal gain promoted by the current union-free, deregulatory enviroment. (Union members make up only eight percent of the private workforce.)

Fortunately, Freeman and the director of the Economic Policy Institute, Lawrence Mishel, met Wednesday with members of the President’s economic team, including top adviser Lawrence Summers. The labor economists made their case for the economic value of unions and the Employee Free Choice Act to experts in an an administration headed by a President who co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act. 

Mishel says his views were well-received: They were knowledgeable and very supportive of the President’s position. You got zero sense of backtracking and zero sense that the economists were in disagreement with the President’s policies [on labor]. They understand and agree that rebuilding unions will help rebuild the middle-class.”

Indeed, there’s overwhelming evidence that workers wages have been largely stagnant since union membership has plummeted since the early 1970s. Between 2000 and 2007, the Economic Policy Institute statement notes, the income of the median working-age household fell by $2,000 – an unprecedented decline. One of the most shocking statistics revealed this week by EPI was that high-school-educated workers who had jobs with health insurance plummeted to about a third today from two-thirds in 1979 –a clear sign of just how much workers’ bargaining power has eroded. And college-educated workers with such jobs have also fallen significantly, amounting to just over 70 percent.

Moreover, except for a burst of prosperity in the Clinton era, wages haven’t kept up with the productivity workers have generated, while the wealth of the country has increasingly been concentrated in the wealthiest 1 percent of the country. They doubled their share of the country’s wealth since 1979 and added a whopping $1.3 million per household in income. That’s not a coincidence,” Freeman pointed out, noting the GOP-led taxation, anti-union and deregulatory policies that made this shift – or stealing –of wealth possible. 

In fact, CAP Action Fund has reported, if union representation levels today were at the same levels as in the early 1980s (about 23 percent), it would add $49 billion in wages and benefits to American workers. 

What’s corporate America’s response? Unions? We don’t need no stinkin’ unions!” 

That, at least, appears to be the view of corporate flacks and lobbying groups. The HR Policy Association has somehow cherry-picked its way through government income data to conclude, in the face of real-world experience and reputable research: Government data doesn’t support the conclusion that strong unions mean a strong middle class.” The EPI-affiliated economists explode the statistical sophistry at work in a new paper of their own. In Parade magazine last Sunday, Mike Eastman with the Chamber of Commerce, claimed in an article called Does America Still Need Unions?” that they’re no longer needed. The workplace is much better today,” he says. Employers know they need to offer certain benefits and good wages to keep good workers.” 

But polling shows that more than half of all workers – nearly 60 million people – said in 2006 that they would join a union if they could. Freeman, who has been studying such polling for years, was surprised because similar opinion polls taken in the 1980s, during Reagan-era union-bashing, showed only about 35 percent of the public wanting to join unions if they could.

But Freeman concludes that the worsening economy and status of workers, even before the latest crash, has led to a new urgency: They need something to protect them in this economy. This isn’t for unions, it’s for workers. It’s what they want” – and the current broken” labor law system doesn’t protect their right to organize a union at all.

Last week, the corporate disinformation campaign continued – but unions and workers are continuing to fight back with perhaps something more powerful: thetruth about the Employee Free Choice Act. They’re giving their side of the story on the airwaves, with solid research, through legal strategies, and most importantly, in grass-roots campaigns. 

For instance, here’s a local communications worker, Regina Walker, telling supporters in Arkansas how much better a union job was for her than a non-union job:

Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, has a realistic but hopeful view of what it will take to gain a level playing field for workers. It will take a huge demand, a million and a half voices, and the largest grassroots legislative mobilization ever to win the Employee Free Choice Act,” he said. 

President Obama’s call for change and economic recovery, Acuff and progressive allies in such groups as the Sierra Club and the NAACP believe, can’t be fully realized until workers finally achieve their long-promised right to bargain for a better standard of living with their employers.

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared, in longer form, on In These Times’ blog The ITT List and The 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.
Brandon Johnson
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