Democrats’ Abandonment of the Employee Free Choice Act

The U.S. corporate class has always been notorious for its ferocious opposition to unions. And true to form, business leaders reacted with collective hysteria to the introduction of legislation in the House and Senate on March 10th that would make it just a bit easier for workers to unionize.

The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would allow unions to win recognition once a majority of workers at a given workplace signs a union card, rather than allowing managers to force their workers to suffer through a drawn-out union election by secret ballot. Employers typically prefer to force a union election because it allows them to delay the decision by months while they fire union supporters and force their workers to endure “captive audience” meetings with managers who threaten to close down the company or move elsewhere in the case of a union victory.

EFCA would also compel recalcitrant employers to bargain with unions, by imposing binding arbitration if there is no agreement reached 120 days after a union wins recognition. This is necessary because roughly half of all new unions never get a contract due to their managements’ refusal to bargain in good faith.

The Chamber of Commerce has called EFCA a “firestorm bordering on Armageddon.” In an October 28th interview on CNBC, John McCain pledged to veto EFCA if elected president, calling it “dangerous for America, [and] it’s dangerous to small business. And I think it’s a threat to one of the fundamentals of democracy.”

The Chamber, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and other anti-union corporate crusaders have raised $200 million to combat EFCA. And they have only just begun to fight, framing their defense of workers’ “right” to a vote by secret ballot in a union election as if this were a struggle to preserve a sacred cornerstone of democracy — by preventing unions from simply asking workers to sign union cards if they would like to join the union.

In reality, EFCA would maintain the option of voting by secret ballot but transfers the decision to workers instead of employers, where it currently resides. Nevertheless, on the March 14 edition of Fox News’ “The Journal Editorial Report,” Wall St. Journal editor Paul Gigot accused “Big Labor” of using “brass knuckles” and their “toughest tactics” to get their way. It turns out that the behavior to which Gigot referred was nothing more thuggish than a group of unions having “written a letter … to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner suggesting that any banks or companies that receive funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program shouldn’t be able to lobby [against EFCA].”

This would seem a perfectly reasonable request, given that both Bank of America and Citigroup organized conference calls to launch their own campaigns against EFCA after receiving $25 billion and $50 billion in bailout funds, respectively. These clueless executives still seem not to realize that union busting is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money — especially in the midst of the apparently limitless taxpayer bailout of the Wall St. banks who provoked the current economic crisis. These are undoubtedly the same sort of managers who believe that referring to underpaid and overworked retail employees as “associates” actually prevents working-class resentment from appearing in their workplaces.

EFCA was last introduced in Congress in 2007, when it fell victim to a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Employers are aiming for the same outcome this time around. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who was a sponsor of the original EFCA bill in 2003, voted for it in 2005 and voted against the Republican filibuster in 2007 was undecided on the new bill until March 24th, when he made a firm about-face. As he explained his newfound anti-union stand, “The problems of the recession make this a particularly bad time to enact Employees Free Choice legislation. Employers understandably complain that adding a burden would result in further job losses.”

Some news outlets, including U.S. News and World Report, have credited Specter with dealing a “death blow” to EFCA because his lone vote will provide Republicans with the 60 Senate votes necessary to successfully vote against cloture — i.e., to achieve a filibuster. Alas, Specter must share the “death blow” distinction with a handful of Senate Democrats who have also belatedly turned against EFCA. Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor from Wal-Mart’s home state of Arkansas, for example, have similarly been peeled away from their previous support for an easier path to unionization. Even Barak Obama, who made his support for EFCA a campaign promise, indicated in a January 15th interview with the Washington Post that he would be open to making some compromise with business interests.

Starbucks, Costco and Whole Foods chief executives came forward with just such a compromise in March. Although these three companies all promote a “progressive” image, they have managed to remain largely union-free — with the exception of Costco, where the Teamsters union has organized about one-fifth of the workforce.

Moreover, their proposed compromise removes the most important aspects of the legislation: the right to unionization by majority card check and binding arbitration after 120 days of management stalling. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey bluntly explained their anti-union reasoning for removing these elements from the bill to the Washington Post, “Armed with those weapons, you will see unionization sweep across the United States and set workplaces at war with each other. I do not think it would be a good thing.”

Even this proposed toothless version of EFCA is too much for the Chamber of Commerce, however. Glenn Spencer, a senior executive at the Chamber argued, “I would say probably from the whole business community’s perspective, there are really no amendments you could make to this bill that would make it acceptable.”

From unions’ viewpoint, removing those key provisions from EFCA would make it worthless, based on the widespread intimidation tactics used by employers. According to the AFL-CIO, when companies are faced with a union drive,

  • 92 percent of managers force their employees to attend closed-door meetings against the union — and 78 percent require their workers to attend one-on-one meetings with their supervisors;
  • 75 percent of companies hire professional union-busters;
  • 52 percent threatens to call U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services against immigrant workers;
  • 25 percent illegally fire at least one worker during a union campaign.

It is no wonder that, as the AFL-CIO notes, 78 percent of the public supports workers’ right to bargain for better wages and benefits — and expresses precious little sympathy for the plight of corporate executives as this economic crisis worsens. Management, not labor, intimidates workers when it comes to union organizing.

But this new phase of the class struggle cannot be won via dueling television ads, however much popular sentiment tilts toward unions. Anti-union corporations spent $50 million on ads skewering Democratic Party candidates during last fall’s Congressional campaigns, while unions mustered only about $10 million for the same purpose against Republicans. Tellingly, Specter told reporters about his Republican peers, “I’m being lobbied on it very, very heavily” before he shifted his vote on EFCA.

Neither Senate Democrats nor labor leaders have thus far waged a principled fight approaching the level of determination exhibited by Republicans and the business lobby over EFCA. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on March 10th that Democrats’ push for a vote on EFCA might “have to wait until after the August recess” unless Democrats are assured the bill can survive a Republican attempt to filibuster. Each month that passes without a vote on this crucial piece of pro-union legislation significantly reduces its chances of success, as Democrats conveniently “forget” the promises they made during their 2008 election campaigns that inspired their supporters to get out the vote.

Unions need to mobilize the millions of workers who are enthusiastic union supporters to gain the upper hand in this struggle.

Sharon Smith is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: This article first appeared on the SW website. Read other articles by Sharon, or visit Sharon's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Ron Horn said on March 27th, 2009 at 10:04am #

    One must understand that under capitalism workers are essentially a cost of doing business, that is, they add to the material, energy, and financial costs of a profit making enterprise. Profit making enterprises exist to extract wealth from the labor of working people and the machines and plant equipment which also exist because of working people.

    The whole system depends upon the private “ownership” of production. Such a system serves a class of owners who thrive at the expense of the vast majority of people who depend for their well being on selling their labor to “owners” on the labor market . Hence owners will always oppose any rights or opportunities for working people to, in any way, enhance their power to modify a system which so brilliantly serves this class of “owners”. The latter constitute a ruling class, and as such, control most of society’s institutions through systems of hierarchy, patronage, control of hiring and firing, bribery, etc.

    To continue at this late date to expend energy trying to play according to the rules made by the ruling class is futile, the only action worth taking is to organize to change the system so that it serves the needs of all the people. How many more wars, how much more environmental degradation, social degradation characterized by huge police forces, a vast prison system, crime, poverty, unemployment, etc., must we continue to endure before we wake up to the necessity, not merely the desirability, of changing the system to serve all the people.

  2. Jeff said on March 27th, 2009 at 3:46pm #

    Well Ron Horn, what NEEDS to be done is that every time anyone makes something “by their hand”, they all collectively NEED to take ownership.

    One supervisor, ten “peeons”.

    Everyone, whom are you?

    Some will say this will lead to anarchy.


    Then comes community without the “third party”

    Trick is, not letting the third party back into the celebration!

  3. Daniel Gerber said on March 27th, 2009 at 4:16pm #

    I am neither pro or against unions. I am not sure whether this new legislation is really having much of an impact on the economy. Somehow the issue seems to be dissected as either anti labor or anti business. In the end unions, corporate shareholders and management are all stakeholders in the same business or even the same industry. In fact assuming all sides are reasonable and flexible they will all recognize that business cycles allow for either some expansion of benefits or contraction in line with business incomes and profits. In Germany, union are represented on the company’s board, maybe that why German executives earn “only” 150 times the average worker salary while in the US it is 300 times or more.

    There is no doubt that legacy costs related to health care and pensions is to a large extent what make US car companies less competitive on the world stage. Of course, the irony is also that US car executives are still the best paid in the world (although recently many have changed their compensation to 1 US$/year). Why does this have to always be a confrontational relationship? Around the world, it seem the most competitive companies are the ones that treat employees well, but also where employees are looking out for the benefit of the company and respect its management. That is what needs to be reestablished, a partnership between labor, shareholders and managers with transparent and honest discussions as to how investments are made, risks are assumed and benefits are distributed and everybody is rewarded according to what they contribute to the company’s well being. In good times a bit more, in bad times a bit less keeping in mind that unless the company is competitive, it is has its days numbered. Finally unions should also not forget who they work for, their role is not as a political force, or to force management to do something but to keep the long term interest of its members in mind. Many times it takes loosing a battle to win the war never forgetting that winning a wasteland brings little benefit to its constituency.

  4. bozh said on March 27th, 2009 at 4:18pm #

    well, the first knife maker may have produced just 5 knives a day; that’s all he may have worked at.
    but having seven children and a wife+old folks he had to obtain daily 3-4 loafs of bread, 2-3 kilos of meat, 2-3 liters milk; enough vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs.
    he was a very rich and happy man. for a knife he made, he calculated that he needed tw0 chickens, 5 eggs, and two loafs of bread.
    selling all the knives he cld clothe and feed his entire family.
    best of all, his children did not have to go to school and they grew to be wonderful human beings because crooks did not get to them.
    and then, some 3T yrs ago an idiot in anatolia invented coins; and we’ve had no peace or justice ever since.
    and it may have not been solely the coin which caused so many wars/abuse of people but other people.
    but before money, another great evil befell us:shamanism followed by more refined cults.
    and damn the people of those days for not killing every shaman, mad priest, and money changer that behaved like madoff, greenspan, friedman, et al.

  5. Brian said on March 27th, 2009 at 4:53pm #

    Just another reason I voted Nader.

  6. Tim said on March 27th, 2009 at 5:41pm #

    Yeah Daniel Gerber. Workers and ‘corporate shareholders and management’ are all ‘stakeholders’ together in the same way that master and slave are ‘stakeholders’ together.

  7. Max Shields said on March 27th, 2009 at 6:19pm #

    On the one hand is labor. Labor has many forms and with technology and the aloofness technology has created, work and the people who perform work has changed. I think it’s important to understand the nature of work and how many people are actually “laborers”.

    Unions have a history, important, integral, and it has served both workers/laborers and corporations. I think a brief history of the Wobbly (think Eugene Debs) or IWW union gives you a good sense of what the union movement, the progressive labor movement was at its best. But that quickly changed and unions became hierarchical political entities that mirrored their counterparts in management.

    Unions are not movements. Let’s be clear. They grew out of the labor movement, and as I said, Wobbly reflected that movement. Wobblies believed in the dichotomy of worker/management has an endless struggle. But again, unions changed well before they lost much of their power.

    Fundamentally it could be argued that the problem is found in the relationship between worker and work. The roles associated with performing work, for whom, what, when, how much are at the core of the problem. If the worker owns production, there is no distinction, no dichotomy. The struggle disappears as one between worker and employer.

    Does the struggle make for an ever improving emergent of equity? Or is the struggle needless, and should be replaced by envisioning new models, new relationships of ownership? I think the latter is a vision of the possibilities.

  8. Jeff said on March 27th, 2009 at 6:52pm #

    Interesting Max.

    This “latter version” beckons agricultural based “something”.

    “What was old in now new again”.

    Growing your own and then using excess for important things could be the “old again” relationship.

    Now that is of scope which for most is science fiction.

  9. Max Shields said on March 27th, 2009 at 7:20pm #


    I think the principles behind permaculture is worthy of serious consideration. It means looking at the world very differently. I mentioned above the “aloofness” that technology creates regarding work, it particularly creates a super aloofness regarding nature, to the point that we literally don’t SEE it any more.

    Permaculture returns that vision. I think it will be turned as a result of collapse on many levels of our current structure of “civilization”. We will be forced to see much, and work with it. New relationships will spring from that new sensitivity.

  10. richard said on March 28th, 2009 at 12:35am #

    The old tyrants were landowners, now they are factory owners. The more things change…