The Huffington Post reports that there is growing concern in organized labor that a faction of Democratic senators will vote against the Employee Free Choice Act, thus killing it. Unions will (and should) work hard on a state-by-state basis to keep Democratic lawmakers on board (and I promise to do my part to get my own wavering Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet on board), but it seems to me there's a much easier way to enforce unity: Make Harry Reid choose between getting every Democrat on board, or ending his political career.
This is not a far-fetched idea. In fact, the inevitable whining, screaming and moaning from Establishment Democrats aside, it would be relatively simple to pull off, and Reid - a smart politician - would know that labor could pull it off in a state like his.
Nevada is a conservative-leaning state, but is also both relatively cheap for political advertising/campaigns, and has an extremely strong labor movement, with roughly 14 percent of its workforce organized. Reid is running for reelection in 2010 in a state that tends to have extremely close elections. The labor movement, therefore, could make a very simple proposal to the Senate Majority Leader: Reid can either A) Schedule the votes for EFCA, during the crucial cloture vote to stop a filibuster get every Democratic senator to vote for cloture, and then get 51 Democrats to vote for it on final passage or B) Not do A, and therefore end his political career knowing that organized labor will put $2 or $3 million into an independent third-party progressive candidate against him in the general election.
That relatively modest (by national political standards) amount of money (which labor could easily muster and which could go a fairly long way in a state like Nevada) combined with the infrastructure of a powerful Nevada labor movement would do two things: 1) Prompt candidacies from top-tier Republican candidates who would otherwise take a pass on the run but who know the independent candidacy would weaken Reid and 2) very likely peel away anywhere from 5 to 15 percent from Reid in his reelection run, all but guaranteeing his defeat to said Republican and the end of his political career.
Let's be clear: Harry Reid himself is not the problem on EFCA. He supports it. But this isn't about Harry Reid or any individual senator - it's about the best means to enacting a desperately needed policy (or at least it shouldn't be for organized labor on an integrally important bill like this).
Let's also be clear - it wouldn't be fair to ask Reid to be responsible for finding the 2 or 3 Republican senators needed to overcome a filibuster. Pressuring the GOP is where labor's state-by-state money should be going, not to efforts to simply get the Democrats (which labor has been supporting for years) to vote the right way. Lord knows, getting a few Republican votes is a big enough task for unions without having to worry about Democratic defectors.
That said, it's completely fair to ask Reid - as leader of a Democratic Party that achieved its majority because of union support - to be responsible for getting every Democratic vote for EFCA. He signed up to be leader and Spiderman reminds us that with great power comes great responsibility. If he's any kind of leader, he should be able to meet the challenge, especially with the fire of potential forced retirement lit under him. And if he can't, then he doesn't belong in office.
Now, I'm sure there will be people who will say, "What, you think a Republican would be better in Nevada's senate seat?" No, I don't. But this has to be a general election strategy - not a primary strategy - because a primary is far less frightening to Reid than a well-financed third-party candidate taking votes out of his base in a general election. More importantly, for organized labor, which knows EFCA is a life-or-death matter to them and who should know that this issue is even more important to them than their clubby relationship with D.C. Democrats, this is the most efficient way to deal with the problem of defecting Democrats. And for progressives who are serious about passing transformative policies, one senate seat in an election year where the Senate majority isn't really in doubt is a worthy wager for a bill as important to the economy and to workers as EFCA.
Indeed, when it comes to a bill like EFCA, which will draw a huge amount of corporate opposition, the only way to get it passed will be to deploy the stick, and not just the carrot that labor has been giving to Democrats with almost no real demands for anything in return. And to those who say this is too sharp a stick, I say get over your queasiness - as they said in Jerry Maguire, this isn't show friends, its show business, or to paraphrase A League of Their Own, this is politics, and there's no crying in politics. If you want to get something as monumental done as EFCA, it's going to require the same kind of stick that passed every other transformative policy, from the New Deal to the Great Society to civil rights laws.
Because of both Reid's reelection calendar and Nevada's dynamics as a conservative-leaning large-union state, the question is no longer whether labor has a powerful enough stick. It does right at its fingertips. It's all a matter of whether the labor movement is willing to act like a movement - whether it is willing to use that stick and put policy goals ahead of individual political relationships in Washington, D.C.