Tula Connell is managing editor at the AFL-CIO .
The Senate begins debate on the Employee Free Choice Act on Monday, with a cloture vote expected Wednesday. Unlike in the House, where the bill passed with a wide margin in March, the Senate fight will be tough, and the union movement is urging all members and allies to send an e-mail to their senators and urge them to vote for the Employee Free Choice Act, S. 1041. The act would give workers more options in forming unions and level the playing field that's now tilted largely toward the boss. In the Senate, Sen. Edward Kennedy has led the fight for the bill, which now has 46 other co-sponsors. (The full list is here.)
But lawmakers like Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., are fighting working families' efforts to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. In May, union members met up with Coleman as he headed for a speaking engagement at the University of Minnesota campus. When workers asked him to support the Employee Free Choice Act, the senator said he could not back the proposed law. In his exchange with union members, Coleman repeated the incorrect canard that this act takes away the right to a secret ballot.
The Employee Free Choice Act does not take away the ballot-election process (which often is controlled by the employer). The act would ensure workers could choose the ballot-election process or the majority sign-up process, in which workers seeking to form a union could sign cards indicating their desire to do so. Majority sign-up is much faster than the government-run balloting process and leaves less time for employers to harass and intimidate workers so they will back off from joining a union.
Coleman is taking his talking points from organizations whose sole purpose is to roadblock access to union membership—and therefore to better wages, benefits and job security. These Big Money groups are waging a massive effort to defeat the bill—making these last few days critical for supporters of the bill to make their voices heard.
The worker advocacy group American Rights at Work offers a look at the key groups behind this smear campaign.
Coalition for a Democratic Workplace (CDW). The deceptively-titled Astroturf group masquerades as a workers’ rights group, mimicking the rhetoric and even logo of legitimate organizations. CDW claims "rank-and-file workers from across the country” are opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act. Yet no workers are named as members on CDW’s website, but hundreds of national, deep-pocketed groups and their affiliates are—including the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Retail Federation.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber co-chairs the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace. In 2006, the chamber spent a record $72 million on lobbying. Chamber Vice President for Labor Policy Randel Johnson told The New York Times: “We’ve targeted [The Employee Free Choice Act] as our No. 1 or No. 2 priority to defeat.”
Operating from the same playbook and talking points, both CDW and the chamber have launched extensive media campaigns in target states to shame and reprimand House members who voted to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and intimidate senators out of following suit. In a CongressDaily article about the expensive ad buy, a chamber spokesperson is quoted as saying: “We’re making people feel pain.”
Center for Union Facts (CUF). Yet another misleadingly named organization, CUF was founded last year by Richard Berman, whose past P.R. campaigns have included convincing pregnant women to eat mercury-laden tuna on behalf of the seafood industry. As the Senate launched hearings on the Employee Free Choice Act in March, CUF released misleading figures based on National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) data that minimized the number of illegal firings during union election campaigns. Both Republican and Democratic Senate staff requested clarification on the group’s claims from the NLRB. Staff at the NLRB swiftly responded to report Berman’s data cannot be substantiated.
Between 3,000 and 5,000 union members and allies are expected at a rally Tuesday for the Employee Free Choice Act on Capitol Hill. This action follows successful efforts by working people to secure passage of nearly 50 pro-Employee Free Choice Act resolutions at the state and local levels, involving more than 1,100 lawmakers; support of more than 100 religious organizations for the act; and backing by civil rights groups such as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Democratic National Committee.
Some 60 million workers say they would join a union if they could. The nation's current labor laws are a big reason why they can't. These last few days of fighting for the Employee Free Choice Act and against the Big Money deal-makers are critical.