The biggest battle between corporate power and workers' rights in over 50 years starts today with the official introduction of the Employee Free Choice Act by leading Democrats in the House and Senate. While the bill is no doubt a boon for workers seeking a level playing field to form a union, whether by secret ballot or majority sign-up, it's also proven to be a lucrative bonanza for PR firms, corporate front groups and a wide variety of GOP lobbyists. They've launched an overheated war filled with apocalyptic rhetoric against the bill.
Between roughly 10 a.m. and noon today, Tuesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee will be featuring hearings on the legislation, viewable live at the committee's website and later archived, as well as on C-Span 3. The second panel of witnesses, with three workers for and one against the bill, should be especially compelling.
(Even so, the right-wing spin continues. The AFL-CIO has even started a "Chicken Little" contest for the most outrageously false and extreme claim made by opponents of the legislation, and the competition is fierce: Is it Newt Gingrich calling the bill a "mortal threat to American freedom" or Home Depot's Bernie Marcus saying it will cause the "demise of a civilization"? There are plenty of contenders, and you can expect more to be added as the battle continues.)
Rachel Maddow on Monday's show summarized the GOP view on the legislation, your standard of living and unions: "If you find it easier to join a union, the world will end. And we would prefer that Americans get paid less."
She explains why the bill doesn't take away the secret ballot and looks at the potential political obstacles facing the bill in an interview with the optimistic SEIU President Andy Stern:
Stern told Maddow about the corporate PR battle so far: "Lying helps. But the tide is going to turn when we hear from the workers, not the CEOs, not the front groups."
That's already underway. The AFL-CIO alone is sponsoring 100 grass-roots events around the country this week, while the SEIU hosted a rally Monday on Capitol Hill, following another rally co-sponsored by all major unions a few weeks ago where over 1.5 million signatures were turned in to Congress favoring the bill. The union movement doesn't have the nearly $200 million that's expected to be spent by corporate and GOP forces since 2008 on paid ads and lobbying (although some corporate spokespeople say the true figure is less than half of that.)
Politico, while continuing to misleadingly claim that current law doesn't permit majority sign-up (or "card check"), aptly calls the PR and lobbying blitz against the bill a full-employment program for GOP lobbyists and flacks: "Union bill creates jobs--for GOP ops." Ben Smith reports:
"There are groups springing up almost every week," said Rhonda Betz of Navigators Global, a consulting firm that started the first anti-EFCA group out of the gate, Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, in 2006. "Some of it is a reflection of them identifying this as a fundraising opportunity, and some of it is a reflection of real stuff going on."
Fighting the bill "employs a whole lot of people in town," conceded another anti-EFCA official. "Only lobbyists could cook something up like this."
"Card check," as its opponents term the bill, is a conservative hot button like abortion or the Fairness Doctrine, only more lucrative. Both sides agree on the stakes -- increased union membership and higher wages -- and the titans of industry are scared enough to spend tens of millions of dollars opposing it.
The union movement doesn't have that extensive network of well-paid lobbyists, and the leading TV ad campaign for the legislation, by American Rights at Work, amounts to only about $10 million in total ad buys so far . But it does have the voices of individual workers who are writing letters, going to rallies, and meeting with their Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill and back home.
Indeed, as the AFL-CIO reports, workers will be coming to Capitol Hill this week to tell their stories, supplementing a broad array of local letter-writing and phone calls.
For instance, Billy Mason, an aerospace worker and former U.S. Marine from Virginia, who came to D.C. to meet with his Representatives, says, "For the last 24 years I have worked at the same plant and watched as our good jobs turned into jobs where we are falling behind on wages and benefits and living check to check. Our only hope for restoring worker moral and holding business accountable is to allow the plant workers to organize and form a union."
And Deborah Kelly, a lineman apprentice who came all the way from Alaska to testify before the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, says, "As a lineman apprentice for the Chugach Electric Association I work hard every day, in sometimes dangerous conditions, to provide power to the Anchorage, Alaska area. I am truly honored to testify before Congress about how I have benefited from joining a union. Thanks to my union, I work with the most highly trained people in the industry and I know will come home safe every night."
At the local grassroots events, workers will be writing letters and calling their Senators, urging them to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. There will be over 100 events across the country including over 40 events just in Alaska, Ark., Calif., Colo., Neb., N.C., Maine, Mont., Pa., Va., and Wisconsin -- including some of the states where fear-mongering ads about thug-like coercion will be featured in local TV markets.
But it's people like Jeff Israel, an active member with local 507 of the United Steelworkers, who explains just why the legislation is so important and his firm belief that the corporate spin against the bill can be overcome:
Union leaders are counting on that sort of passion to ultimately trump the well-paid PR blitz against the Employee Free Choice Act.