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Next Stop for Employee Free Choice: 2008 Elections

Photo Credit: Bill Burke/Page OneBig thanks again to all of you in the FDL community: Your support for the Employee Free Choice Act over the months really has been critical—through your e-mails to lawmakers, your blog posts and words of encouragement in this spot.

In a procedural vote Tuesday, a majority of senators backed Employee Free Choice, but because the Senate requires a “super majority” of 60 votes to consider a bill, Big Business-backed Republicans were able to block it. Thanks to Jane for making sure everyone heard about the vote right after it happened.

In a truly democratic world, the Tuesday’s 51–48 vote would have meant the bill passed. But unlike in the House (where the bill passed by 241–185 in March), that’s not the way it works in the Senate, and the “cloture” vote was not sufficient to bring the bill to a vote. As Jane pointed out, all Senate Democrats, both Independents and one Republican—Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter—voted to bring the bill to a vote. (I’ve written tons on Employee Free Choice in this spot—for background, check out here and here.)

The Senate debate on Employee Free Choice featured the best and the worst of those in that elite body. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has championed the bill since 2003, when it didn’t have a chance to move out of committee, spoke passionately of the need to strengthen the ability of America’s workers to form unions as a key way to strengthen—and salvage—the nation’s middle class.

Working people aren’t getting their fair share of our economic growth. Their hard work is producing skyrocketing corporate profits—not higher paychecks, better benefits or better lives for their families. The best way to see that employees get their fair share is to give them a stronger voice.

Kennedy sponsored the bill, which had 46 Democratic co-sponsors.

Sen. Hillary Clinton further hammered home the connection between strong unions and a strong middle class. Clinton pointed out the advantages of belonging to a union:

  • Union workers earn, on average, 30 percent more than nonunion workers.
  • Union workers are much more likely to receive employer-paid health insurance and participate in an employer-provided retirement plan.
  • Union women earn $179 more a week than nonunion women; African Americans $187 more a week; and Latinos $217 more a week. (Get more on the union difference here.)

On the other side of the great working people-Big Business divide, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) predictably came out as the vitriolic voice of corporate greed, repeating the lie that the Employee Free Choice Act would take away the secret ballot election process by which workers form unions. The act would give workers seeking to join unions more options to do so by adding the majority sign-up (card-check) process and enabling workers to choose between majority sign-up and the government-run ballot election process. But here’s what McConnell said (over and over and over…):

The secret ballot has been standard everywhere else in this country for more than a century. It simply hasn’t been questioned. Americans have come to assume that in everything from electing their high school yearbook editor to their president, their vote is sacred and it is secret.

That is, until now. The so-called “Employee Free Choice Act” is an assault on the centuries-old practice of secret voting, and the fact that we are here in this chamber discussing it at all is a scandal.

Bob Geiger wrote a great post exposing McConnell’s blatant lies.

…beneath the bluster and the coating of slime, McConnell knows damn good and well that the [Employee Free Choice Act] would not have kept any group of workers from having a secret ballot unless they expressly chose to forego that method of unionizing in favor of the easier petitioning that the bill would have allowed.

“I listened again to what the Republican leader said about secret ballots, and I know there is a disconnect here, because, again, this legislation doesn’t get rid of that,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) in response to McConnell’s flight from truth.

“Those who do not support the Employee Free Choice Act have tried to mislead people by claiming that this bill takes away employee rights to a ‘secret ballot.’ This is simply not true,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), one of the chief proponents of the legislation. “This bill does not establish a new election process; it merely requires employers to honor employees’ choices on whether or not they want to unionize.

John Logan, who teaches in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science and has conducted significant research on the booming multimillion-dollar anti-union business in the United States, yesterday contradicted the blatant falsehood that topped the Senate GOP’s anti-union talking points:

…opponents have seized upon this final provision allowing for card-check recognition of unions to label the measure an unprecedented and anti-democratic power grab….But contrary to their vitriolic rhetoric, card-check recognition is neither unprecedented nor anti-democratic. A system of card-check recognition has operated successfully in the United Kingdom since the enactment of the Employment Relations Act in 2000. This law allows the U.K. equivalent of the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union when over 50 percent of workers sign union membership cards, or call an election if it believes this is in the interests of good industrial relations. In practice, however, the board rarely requires an election when a majority of workers have signed union membership cards.

Scholars such as Logan, who also have experienced an environment in which unions are allowed to thrive, clearly understand the need for Employee Free Choice.

The case for stronger legal protection for workers’ rights is compelling. The U.S. system of union recognition is the most cumbersome in the developed world, and it provides the weakest protections for workers’ right to choose a union. Employer intimidation is endemic, and there are now about 60 million Americans who want a union but can’t get one, according to the eminent Harvard economist, Richard Freeman. [Employee Free Choice] would remedy that situation by imposing greater penalties on employers who discriminate against union supporters, providing for mediation and arbitration when employers and unions fail to negotiate first contracts, and allowing workers to form a union when over 50 percent sign union membership cards.

Anti-worker mouthpieces like McConnell are spreading another lie—that their BIG LIE in painting the Employee Free Choice Act as undemocratic won the day. But their sham triumphalism covers up what they know is the real truth: Working people and their unions made huge strides this year, moving this farther and faster than most pundits would have imagined. Three years ago, the bill didn’t get out of committee. This year, it made it through the House and with a majority vote in the Senate.

And next year is the 2008 elections. Guess who’s up for re-election?

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