It has been a long time since the liberal left thought much beyond a single election cycle. Stuck playing defense for so long, too few are thinking about offense. Progressives always seem to be well informed about what they are against, but lack a concrete idea of what they’re for. More profoundly, few dare to touch the real issues: a lack of power and a road map for obtaining it.
Well in the works, however, is what comes as close to a specific, political panacea to long-term political problems as can be expected in a world without panaceas. No single bill can do it all, but one piece of legislation—currently within three votes of having a majority of sponsors in the house—will mean a better day for the working poor, minorities, women, immigrants, and even those blue-collar white guys drifting about among the “Reagan Democrats.” It will also help to switch the debate away from the “three Gs” of the culture wars—God, guns, and gays—by reigniting a little economic populism. The impact of the bill should mean increase access to health care, the closing of the wealth gap, rebuildng civil society, and an increase voter turnout. And it will cost the government practically nothing.
The legislation is the Employee Free Choice Act or EFCA (H.R. 1696 and S. 842)—the first major attempt to reform labor law since the 1970s. While such an idea might seem improbable in an age in which Tom Delay has likened labor leaders to terrorists, it already has 215 co-sponsors in the House—just three shy of an outright majority and 42 co-sponsors in the Senate, nine short of a majority. As the Bush administration is buckling under the weight of its own incompetence, the time is right to begin to think about the future.
EFCA promises to take what is now a nasty, bruising, and hopelessly lawyer-dominated organizing process and turn it into a simple and equitable matter of getting a majority of employees to sign union cards. In addition to simple “card check” or majority verification, EFCA provides mechanisms to prevent employers from starting a war of attrition against workers once they have selected a union by sending the issue to mediation if 90 days pass without a contract. It also contains several protections for workers including treble back pay for the discriminatory discharge of union organizers.
Most advocates of labor law reform argue from a position of simple fairness, and that case is easy to make. There has been a war on organized labor in the last two decades, and private sector union density is now down to a paltry 8%. Labor law, originally designed to “encourage” collective bargaining, has been reduced to little more than a management tool. The national labor relations machinery allows employers to be militantly, aggressively, hostile to the decisions of their employees even though three-fourths of all Americans think employers should be neutral. There are reportedly over fifty million Americans out there with an interest in joining a union but who do not have fair mechanisms available for doing so.
All that labor wonk stuff is important, but it overlooks the economic and political potential of meaningful labor law reform. Everyone is lamenting the outsourcing of those “high-paying” manufacturing jobs, but we tend to forget that those jobs used to be crappy low-paying jobs before the CIO turned them into coveted good-paying jobs. In Las Vegas—what many refer to as the River Rouge of the service sector—the labor movement is not only delivering the goods, but delivering them to those that have been traditionally ignored by the labor movement. The members of today’s Las Vegas Culinary union are 65 percent nonwhite, 70 percent female, and full of recent immigrants. As Marianne Singer, a waitress at the unionized MGM Grand, explained, "Our wages are higher, the medical benefits are great, and we have a guaranteed 40-hour week. Thanks to all that, I have a beautiful 2,000-square-foot home with a three-car garage." A new blue-collar golden age might just rise from the despair of today’s Nickel and Dimed world.
A rise in union density not only means more justice on the job, it means long-term political majorities. The dwindling number of union members still accounts for 25% of voter turnout, and three-fifths of them vote Democratic. With just a tiny up-tick in union density, the debacle of 2000 would have been a clear cut victory for Al Gore (and thus hopefully avoiding a disastrous war, apocalyptic energy policies, and further erosion of the quality of working-class life). Basically, members of the labor movement are like a two-for-one deal since they vote more often than their unorganized counterparts and when they vote, the pull the lever for the Dems. After what could be a sizable increase in union density with EFCA, the rest of the progressive agenda will have a much easier time flowing with more voters, more money, more organization, more ideas, and more power, all of which will give the edge to better legislation on health care, education, immigration, taxation, civil rights, and the rest of the progressive wish list.
In essence, the Employee Free Choice Act might just be the big—and specific—idea that can help re-orient the Democratic Party toward long-term success. The key is that freedom of association melds self-interest, the desire for a better life, with the common good. As labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan wrote about the possibilities of card check over a decade ago, “Look, I am not naïve. I realize Americans are individualists. I know this is the culture of narcissism, and that community, solidarity, etc., are on their way out. But if the labor laws changed…I think Americans would join unions like crazy, simply out of self-interest, raw, Reaganite self-interest.”
That self-interest, rightly formulated, could lead to not only a better material life for workers, but better politics for the nation. The fight will be vicious—opponents typically drag out the filibuster on labor issues—but with the Republican tide ebbing, it is time to start thinking about the bigger picture. For too long progressives have known what they were against, but not always clear what they’re for. The Employee Free Choice Act is a good place to start.
Jefferson Cowie (email@example.com) is an associate professor of history at Cornell University and the author of Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor. He has written for the American Prospect, Dissent, New Labor Forumand the Chicago
Tribune. He serves on the Workers’ Rights Committee of Americans for Democratic Action.