Thursday, March 26, 2009

Which Side Are you On?

Which Side Are You On?
100 Days
By Christopher Hayes

This article appeared in the April 6, 2009 edition of
The Nation. March 18, 2009.

Legislative fights in Washington rarely break down
neatly along class lines. Often, the coalitions on
either side of an issue are unwieldy and eclectic, with
one sector or industry battling another. The notable
exception is the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which
would reform a broken labor elections system, making it
easier (one might say possible) for workers to
unionize.

On March 10 the bill was reintroduced in the House and
the Senate, ushering in the final act in a six-year
legislative battle that has become the most bruising
and intense in Washington, one that--literally--pits
Capital against Labor.

For the GOP the politics are straightforward. Woven
into the DNA of the modern conservative is opposition
to unions and unionism of any kind. Defeating the bill
has become a kind of jobs program for right-wing hacks:
no fewer than sixteen groups are raising money,
mobilizing constituents, running ads and lobbying
senators to kill it.

But for a Democratic Party that for several decades has
awkwardly attempted to be the party of both business
and labor, it's a very difficult circle to square. "It
comes at a bad time," says a wealthy, business-friendly
Democratic donor. "[Democrats] are blaming bankers,
blaming lots of people, and it sounds like these people
are anti-business.... A lot of us warned the guys
working for Obama that [EFCA] would be a problem. They
said, Don't overreact to this--it's a long way from
becoming law, blah, blah, blah."

In this particular fight, class solidarity--if I may
use a phrase that has long since gone out of
fashion--seems to trump partisan loyalties.

Obama supporter and advocate of progressive taxation
Warren Buffett has come out against the legislation.
And according to that wealthy Democrat I talked with,
he's not alone: "I think a lot of Democratic donors are
downright pissed off," he told me. His fellow
well-heeled Democratic donors, he said, are complaining
that "this is the danger of having Democrats control
Congress and the White House." The head of a large
progressive nonprofit echoed the point. The act, he
said, "happened to come up a few times" recently with
donors. He was surprised by how intense their
opposition is. "The passion of it threw me off a bit,"
he added.

Part of the source of these tensions is the fact that
the disgraced financial sector (which increasingly
leans Democratic in its donations) has largely thrown
its weight behind opposing the bill--despite the fact
that these same businesses are being kept on life
support by the government. A Citibank retail analyst
downgraded Wal-Mart's stock for fear that the bill
would pass; the next day she hosted an "informational"
conference call featuring a representative from the US
Chamber of Commerce, who spent the entire call warning
darkly about EFCA. (After the Huffington Post broke the
news of the anti-EFCA call in mid-March, Citi hurriedly
hosted a call with members of the United Food and
Commercial Workers.)

"This is the biggest battle between labor and
corporations in this country since the Taft-Hartley Act
of 1947," the AFL-CIO's organizing director, Stewart
Acuff, told me. What makes the battle especially
intense is that while both sides have attempted to
shape public opinion, polls show that the issue doesn't
amount to even a blip on voters' radar. A recent poll
found majority support for a bill that would make it
easier to organize, but only 12 percent of respondents
said they were following the EFCA bill "very closely."

That means victory will ultimately come not from
shaping public opinion but from pressuring the handful
of swing senators. Each side is ferociously organizing
constituents in those senators' states.

A few of these red state Democrats--in a kind of parody
of squishy centrism--have hinted they'd like to find
some legislative compromise. "This legislation is not
perfect," Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor said recently.
"And while I have been supportive in the past, I will
consider amendments to make it better if and when it is
considered by the Senate." Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson
said he thinks that "there'll be a major effort to
modify it before it ever comes up for consideration,
and I'll have to take a look and see what it is then."
Some senators have floated compromises, such as
extending the amount of time management would have to
negotiate a first contract before binding arbitration.

If Senate Democrats think an amendment will give them
political cover, they're fooling themselves. Just ask
big business. Speaking on the Citi conference call,
Glenn Spencer of the Chamber of Commerce said, "There
is no amendment you could make to this bill to make it
acceptable. From top to bottom it's a bad piece of
legislation. You'd have to start with scrapping this
bill."

Labor also sees EFCA as a black and white issue and is
eager to take away the middle ground. Acuff says the
fundamental question is, "Are you for unions or are you
against unions? If you're against this legislation,
you're against unions. You can't say you're for unions
if you don't think workers should be able to form
unions without fear of retaliation."

Sometime in the next few months, every Democratic
elected official is going to have to answer a very old
question that in a post-meltdown world is newly
resonant: Which side are you on?


About Christopher Hayes Christopher Hayes is The
Nation's Washington editor. His wife works in the White
House Counsel's office.

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