"This is a David-and-Goliath confrontation, but we believe we'll have enough stones in the sling to knock this out."
That is a recent statement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when asked whether business lobbyists will defeat the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) - a labor-backed bill that cribs from Canadian law and makes joining a union a tiny bit easier. In the imminent confrontation over this almost embarrassingly modest proposal, corporations are actually billing themselves as the underdog - the poor, overmatched peasant David against the Philistine monster Goliath.
To the propaganda-numbed ear, it sounds plausible. History books and Washington news releases have seared a corporate hagiography into the public discourse - one mythologizing business as the brave little guy fighting the good fight against all-powerful union puppet masters - even as labor's agenda has been stomped for a generation.
In truth, if the EFCA is "a David-and-Goliath confrontation," then labor is David and the unholy business-politician alliance is Goliath - and that is an understatement. In a political system run by money, this is the United States invading Grenada, Sherman blazing into Atlanta, German tanks challenging Polish horses. This is the NBA All-Star squad playing a high-school team; Hulk Hogan arm-wrestling Gary Coleman; Michael Phelps competing in the Special Olympics.
In short, the struggle pitting Big Business and bought-off lawmakers against workers has been a cruel joke.
According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, corporate executives at Goliath, Inc. spent $17 billion lobbying Congress in the last decade. Labor leaders at David's union hall mustered $333 million. In the 2008 election, business interests have outspent unions 18-to-1 on campaign contributions.
Of course, with Democrats poised to win the election, many believe the EFCA is a fait accompli because of the fallacy that unions own the Democratic Party. What a laugh.
During the 1990s, Bill Clinton helped the Gordon Gekkos crash the Democratic Party, infamously translating his support for NAFTA, telecom deregulation and Wall Street favors into campaign checks. Today, business has given 10 times the cash to Democratic candidates that labor has coughed up. In that context, a Democratic sweep in 2008 automatically assures EFCA's passage about as much as Chevron's environmental ads guarantee the oil industry's commitment to seriously fighting climate change.
That said, corporations' underdog act reveals their authentic fear that EFCA could pass next year - and it certainly could. That's because America is not (yet) a pure plutocracy. To the dismay of the country-club crowd, workers still get most of the votes in elections, and this time around, they may actually vote their wallets.
The 2008 campaign has become a referendum on the results of conservative economic policy, and 30 years into Ronald Reagan's class war, those results are stark. As the government stopped enforcing labor laws, business ramped up union busting, union membership plummeted and workers predictably lost ground. Today, industry profits rise, wages decrease and white-collar theft gets more audacious. Just last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that companies are raiding employees' pension funds "to finance their executives' retirement benefits and pay." (If workers got a dime for every story like this, their pay would be much higher.)
In response to this predatory behavior, the prey is getting smart. Polls now show most Americans say they would join a union if given the chance (i.e., if they could without facing the employer retribution that EFCA is designed to prevent). The country has figured out that in an everyone-for-themselves capitalism, there is safety in numbers.
And so far away from the power lunches and Gucci gulches of Washington, unions have been organizing this realization into grass-roots pressure - and it might be just enough to pass the EFCA. The Davids have discovered that money may talk, but enough voters may be able to make Goliath walk.