After Specter Flip-Flop: Unions' Grass-Roots Campaign vs. Joe the Plumber, Shill

Washington pundits and even some anxious progressives pronounced the Employee Free Choice Act virtually dead because of Sen. Arlen Specter's flip-flop on the bill. But the union movement is ramping up its largest grass-roots campaign ever, and quite willing to flex its political muscle on behalf of workers' rights.

Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, points out the scope of the grass-roots campaign -- and also sends out hints that centrist and Blue Dog Democrats can't count on labor support anymore if they don't back this bill as they did in the previous Congress. Not only has the AFL-CIO alone helped generate 55,000 hand-written letters to legislators in Washington since January, but Acuff has observed:

What grassroots American movement can in the span of one week run 57 letters to the editor in newspapers across America, send 14,000 handwritten letters to 10 U.S. Senators, and simultaneously plan 35 grassroots advocacy events with workers in 10 states?

America's labor movement, the AFL-CIO, can. Now that the Employee Free Choice Act has been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate, organized labor's multi-state grassroots campaign is running at full throttle. Religious leader are speaking out for the Employee Free Choice Act to create fairness in the economy. Small business owners are sending letters, signing petitions, and testifying about the value to their business of having a union. Newly appointed Colorado Senator, Mike Bennet, says that at every campaign stop and town hall meeting, a worker asks his position on the Employee Free Choice Act.

Acuff said in an interview, "We 're going to escalate our grass-roots campaign, and there's no doubt that our campaign has overwhelmed the [local grass-roots] campaign of Big Business. I think the number of contacts between workers and workers allies with members of the Senate far exceeds theirs."

That's one reason union leaders aren't going to back down from the basic principles of the bill, or gut such key provisions as majority sign-up, even as some union strategist say they're potentially open to tweaking the legislation in ways that will keep Democrat support unified and could win over a few moderate Republicans. And that's why even the statement of Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday that she's looking for alternatives to the legislation doesn't doom the ultimate prospects for its passage, union activists say.

(In addition, the media spin on her statement falsely implied that she was abandoning support for the legislation altogether -- although it's troubling that she seems to have bought into the right-wing message that unions are bad for the economy. The evidence is overwhelming, as recent reports from Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Economic Policy Institute show, that unionization is a tonic for a troubled economy, boosting consumer demand and potentially adding as much as $49 billion to the economy in added wages and salaries annually for newly unionized workers -- if union representation rates became as high as they were in the early 1980s, nearly 25%. And it's clear from EPI's careful new report that unionization simply doesn't cost businesses jobs or lead to closures, even for small businesses.)

As Stewart Acuff says, " The Employee Free Choice Act is a critical part of the policy package needed to get us out of the current economic mess. We have a crisis in demand. Thirty years of failed trickle-down economics and free market idolatry, and stagnant and declining wages, have left too little money in the hands and pockets of America's workers to power the American economic engine. That is the root cause of our crisis. And those who think otherwise are wrong."

But most critically, Acuff and other union leaders are demonstrating a pragmatic willingness to do what's necessary to get their top-priority legislation passed, without sacrifcing its core principles. He acknowledges, "The legislative process is dynamic and the bill may be tweaked in the process. The AFL-CIO continues to escalate our campaign for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. We intend to pass it in the coming weeks. If the country's largest banks and financial institutions need bailing out after their own ridiculous excesses of greed and de-regulated fiancial frenzy, workers need the economic power afforded by collective bargaining...We will continue to work with the White House and the Congressional leadership to pass this critical legislation even if that requires adjustments along the way. "

Indeed, The Los Angeles Times also pointed to the unions' major goals for the legislation: "Unions say they are somewhat open to a compromise bill, but they insist that it must include provisions that make organizing easier, force companies to negotiate contracts quickly and increase penalties against employers that retaliate against union organizers."

It's not surprising, then, that on two fronts late last week week, Big Business and its allies concocted some new strategies to try to overcome the grass-roots advantage the labor movement apparently enjoys. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, for instance, business leaders threatened to halt a planned construction project that could employ 800 people in their area and, somehow, build it overseas if the Employee Free Choice Act passes. [My question: how's that going to work-- the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce members will relocate to China?] The AFL-CIO Now blog called it "economic terrorism," and Tula Connell makes her point clearly:

Eau Claire County said a project was derailed because of the proposed Employee Free Choice Act. According to today's Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, the unnamed project would have brought a $50 million investment to Eau Claire County in the next five years, along with creating up to 800 full-time jobs, Brian Doudna, executive director of the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp., said in a news release Wednesday evening. Construction was expected to begin this year. The first employees were to begin work in early 2010, with about 100 new jobs being created.

'Proposed federal and state legislation, as shown by this company's decision, can impact location decisions and limit the private sector's ability to create quality jobs for Eau Claire area residents. This is especially disappointing given the condition of our current national, regional and local economies.'

Yo, Brian: What's "disappointing" is the blackmail screaming out here. The threat by employers to destroy the community they theoretically are invested in just so those employers don't have to actually talk with workers across a bargaining table about what might make for a safe workplace, what they need to support their families and retire without working until they die.

That's bad enough. But here's the kicker:

`Doudna said if the bill is approved, the project will not occur--at least not in the U.S.'

Blackmail, big time. In short, U.S. corporations are saying: Give us unlimited control over the lives of our workers, or we'll go to another nation where "human rights" is a dirty phrase and "workers' rights" even worse.

To top it all off, a leading anti-labor front group, Americans for Prosperity, has announced it's recruited "Joe the Plumber" to campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act , starting with "rallies" in some Pennsylvania cities. Real, licensed, unionized plumbers, as opposed to the unlicensed fraud (and Snuggie model) who calls himself "Joe the Plumber," are angry at his efforts to pass him off as the legitimate voice of the working man. As Greg Sargent of The Washington Post's Plumline reported:

I checked in with Rick Terven, the political and legislative director for The United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada. (Sorry, I couldn't resist sharing the full name.) He tore into his high-profile plumber colleague as follows:

"Joe the plumber is selling out real plumbers. Right now, labor law is stacked against real plumbers. Real plumbers want and need the Employee Free Choice Act as a way to empower themselves to join a union, without fear of intimidation or losing their jobs. Joe the Plumber doesn't speak for real plumbers.?

Terven claimed that the Plumbers Union, which says it has over 300,000 members, had done a survey of non-union plumbers finding that 70% of them wanted to join a union if they could do so without fear of retribution, though I couldn't immediately get the details of their survey.

Despite these "astro-turf" gambits by business lobbies to gin up the appearance of widespread hostility to union rights, the unions are pressing ahead with their campaign for the Employee Free Choice Bill.

America's single largest union, SEIU, has also chalked up an impressive array of political initiatives on behalf of the bill, and they're not letting one Senator's defection stop their momentum. As the union's online organizer, Brad Levinson, wrote to union supporters:

There is still a clear path to passing the Employee Free Choice Act. If anything, we're ready, in fact, to ramp up to make the case for Free Choice.

Here's what Harry Reid said immediately when the news broke:

"Anyone who thinks they're burying card check because of Specter's statement in an effort to avoid a primary in Pennsylvania should not think legislation is going to go away."

The Employee Free Choice Act essentially comes down to improving their lives. We're not about to give up on the Employee Free Choice Act, our members, or what we know we need to do to help improve our nation, our economy, and American lives. So, full steam ahead for us.

To start, here's Andy Stern's email to our Pennsylvania Activists directing calls into Specter's offices.

For years - even just last week on Andrea Mitchell Reports - Sen. Specter has said that there needs to be a debate on how we reform labor laws in this country.

So, why did Specter go ahead yesterday and decide to oppose cloture, denying a full debate on the Employee Free Choice Act?

We don't know for sure. There is this Quinnipiac poll though that was also released yesterday.

In it, former Rep. Pat Toomey leads Specter by 14 points in a GOP primary, and Specter is below a 50% approval rating among primary voters:

"Pennsylvania Republicans are so unhappy with Sen. Specter's vote for President Barack Obama's Stimulus Package and so-called pork barrel spending that they are voting for a former Congressman they hardly know," said Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Republican voters disapprove of his vote on the stimulus 70 to 25 percent. Democrats overwhelmingly support the move 87 to 6 percent."

It's not as if opposing cloture will cause GOP primary voters to instantly forgive Specter. In fact, quotes in the last 24 hours from members of his party and opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act show no sign of backing down, as Greg Sargent points out.

For instance, Specter's announcement drew only mockery and scorn from former GOP Rep. Ernest Istook, the chair of the anti-EFCA group Save Our Secret Ballot.

"Specter enjoys being the center of attention," Istook said. "There has probably been more money spent to influence his vote on this issue than on any other vote, from any other senator, at any other time. He wants to continue enjoying the attention and the fundraising opportunity."

Doug Stafford of the anti-EFCA National Right to Work Committee added in a statement that Specter's move should be "viewed with some skepticism," adding that other labor-oriented proposals championed by Specter remain "totally unacceptable" and will enable "Big Labor to corral more workers into forced unionism."

If anything, Specter's move has, in fact, isolated him more than if he had voted for cloture. Here's what Jason Rosenbaum says:

"Right now, there isn't an obvious candidate to run as a Democrat for the seat, and without labor's backing, none would like appear. However, if Specter follows through on this...his Senate seat in 2010 will become a top target not just for labor, but for the Democratic Party.

"People should be calling out Specter's political move for what it is. He's participating in obstructionism and he's making it harder for our economy to recover, all because he perceives a bigger threat from the discredited and dis-empowered right than he does from an ascendant left. It's a strange choice, and a choice that will likely cost him."

In addition, while there has been speculation that some centrist Democrats now have political cover to back away from the Employee Free Choice Act, Acuff also hints at the political dangers that await centrist and Blue Dog Democrats, especially in the Senate, who may be considering abandoning their previous support for the legislation. Acuff says, "I don't see how you win statewide in America as a Democrat if you don't have the support of organized labor."

That lesson, along with the bill's majority support among the public,hasn't been lost on a surprising number of freshman Democrats from politically conservative areas who are willing to buck conservative hyperbole over the legislation. As Politico reported recently, in "Freshman Dems Not Scared of EFCA":

Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.) represents a conservative-minded district where organized labor doesn't have a noticeable footprint. She's ranked among the more vulnerable freshman Democrats, and there's no shortage of Republicans who are eager to challenge her in 2010.

At first glance, that would seem to make the Employee Free Choice Act political poison for her. Instead, she's a co-sponsor of the controversial card check legislation.

Indeed, Markey is one of a surprisingly large number of Democratic freshmen sitting in competitive seats who have signed on as EFCA co-sponsors and challenged the conventional wisdom that at-risk, first-term members should avoid high-profile positions on tough votes.

In total, 25 of the 32 Democratic members of the Class of 2008 are EFCA co-sponsors.

It's small wonder, then, that Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director, among other union strategists, are still confident they'll get enough votes,60, to overcome any threatened filibuster:

"First of all we are in discussions with other Republicans," she said. "We never thought that Specter would be the only Republican we could talk to. We have a lot of union members in other states who are communicating with their Senators as well, both Democrats and Republicans to shore up support of this."

And Stewart Acuff concludes that, at the end of the day politically, "We'll pass The Employee Free Choice Act, and we'll restore the freedoms of workers to join unions and bargain collectively."