Bat­tle heats up on union mea­sure to avoid se­cret bal­lots

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY SEAN LENGELL

Demo­cratic Se­nate can­di­date Al Franken is knocked as anti-worker.

Cor­po­rate Amer­ica is mocked as be­ing run by over­paid fat cats.

As organized la­bor and its Demo­cratic al­lies push to change fed­eral rules that would make it eas­ier to union­ize, they’re squar­ing off with pro-busi­ness groups in one of the most ag­gres­sive and ex­pen­sive ad wars of the elec­tion sea­son.

The Amer­i­can Rights at Work group on La­bor Day be­gan a $5 mil­lion four-week na­tion­wide ca­bletele­vi­sion ad cam­paign in sup­port of the Em­ployee Free Choice Act, which would al­low unions to or­ga­nize new lo­cals if a ma­jor­ity of em­ploy­ees sign cards or pe­ti­tions — by­pass­ing the tra­di­tional se­cret­bal­lot method of or­ga­niz­ing.

The ad de­picts an ac­tor rep­re­sent­ing a cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive on a see­saw with an an­nouncer say­ing, “CEOs’ salaries are get­ting fat­ter and fat­ter.” The laugh­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive’s smile drops when a group of “work­ers” sit on the plank’s op­po­site end, sus­pend­ing him above the ground.

The group, which ran the ad in bat­tle­ground states, says it may con­sider more ad buys later this year.

“When there is a dif­fi­culty to get a union in your work­place, that’s a dis­ad­van­tage for work­ers,” said Josh Gold­stein, a spokesman with the pro-union group. “This is more about the econ­omy, it’s more about health care, and it’s more about the min­i­mum wage than it is about the la­bor move­ment.”

Both sides of the de­bate agree the “card-check mea­sure,” if passed, would dra­mat­i­cally en­hance la­bor’s abil­ity to in­crease its mem­ber­ship. U.S. union mem­ber­ship has fallen from 35 per­cent of the work force in the mid-1950s to about 12 per­cent in 2007. Less than 8 per­cent of pri­vate-sec­tor work­ers are in unions.

“The strength of la­bor in this coun­try is a mea­sure­ment of the suc­cess of our econ­omy — it re­ally is,” Mr. Gold­stein said. “You can­not have a strong mid­dle class without a strong la­bor move­ment.”

A U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce TV ad in Min­nesota por­trays Mr. Franken’s sup­port of the card­check pro­posal as akin to deny­ing work­ers’ rights, say­ing that “tak­ing away the pri­vate vote is just plain un­demo­cratic.”

The cham­ber is run­ning a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ad cam­paign against the mea­sure in Maine and other bat­tle­ground states, and may ex­pand the ef­fort else­where in the com­ing weeks, of­fi­cials said.

“But that will pale in com­par­i­son to the $400 mil­lion the unions will spend on this,” said Glenn Spencer, who heads the cham­ber’s anti-card­check cam­paign. “We are def­i­nitely out­gunned on this, but we have a winning mes­sage, I think, and the unions don’t.”

The la­bor move­ment col­lec­tively is ex­pected to spend about $400 mil­lion on pro­mot­ing candidates and is­sues this elec­tion cy­cle, in­clud­ing more than $200 mil­lion from the pow­er­ful AFL-CIO la­bor fed­er­a­tion. But union of­fi­cials say only a por­tion of the to­tal amount will be spent di­rectly on sup­port­ing card-check leg­is­la­tion.

The Change to Win la­bor fed­er­a­tion will spend “tens of mil­lions of dol­lars” pro­mot­ing the Em­ployee Free Choice Act, said Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Chris Chafe. The cam­paign will in­clude TV, ra­dio and print ads in Ore­gon, Alaska, Min­nesota, Mis­sis­sippi and New Hamp­shire, as well as other bat­tle­ground states.

“It’s a ma­jor, ma­jor pri­or­ity for Change to Win and its af­fil­i­ates,” said Mr. Chafe, whose coali­tion in­cludes the In­ter­na­tional Brother­hood of Team­sters and the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union.

The AFL-CIO hasn’t bought ads yet in sup­port of card check, but in­stead has fo­cused on pro­mot­ing the pro­posal in­ter­nally to its mem­bers, said Fred Az­carate, who heads the group’s pro-card-check ef­forts. But he said the fed­er­a­tion may run ads in the com­ing weeks.

“We’re looking at all our op­tions in terms of paid ad­ver­tis­ing,” he said.

Union and Demo­cratic leaders, in­clud­ing pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Sen. Barack Obama, say the card­sign­ing — or card-check — method is fairer than the se­cret bal­lot method be­cause it’s a sim­pler, more di­rect ap­proach for work­ers to de­cide whether they want to union­ize. Unions ar­gue they need the leg­is­la­tion to de­fend against anti-union com­pa­nies and law­mak­ers, which they blame in part for decades of de­clin­ing mem­ber­ship.

Op­po­nents of the bill, in­clud­ing big busi­nesses such as Wal-Mart, say Democrats are mak­ing a des­per­ate at­tempt to pan­der to organized la­bor — one of the party’s most loyal back­ers. They add the pro­posal would de­prive work­ers of their pri­vacy and their right to vote.

The fight over the bill has un­der­scored the his­toric al­liances of la­bor with Democrats and busi­ness with Repub­li­cans. The GOP added a plank to its pol­icy plat­form that de­mands work­ers re­tain the right to union­ize through se­cret-bal­lot elec­tions.

For­mer New York mayor and one-time Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani re­cently told The Wash­ing­ton Times that Demo­cratic ef­forts to change the la­bor vot­ing sys­tem would leave work­ers vul­ner­a­ble to cor­rup­tion and in­tim­i­da­tion.

A card-check pro­posal passed the House last year 241-185, largely along party lines. It failed in the Se­nate 51-48 — nine votes short of the 60 needed to pro­ceed to fi­nal pas­sage.

Democrats say they will rein­tro­duce the mea­sure next year.

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