Labor Seeks Election Rewards

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bolstered by exit polling data showing that union members played a pivotal role in President-elect Barack Obama's victory, the AFL-CIO served notice yesterday that it views the election results as ratification of organized labor's ambitious agenda.

Labor's top priority is passage of legislation that would make it easier to organize unions, which advocates say would help labor groups expand their shrinking numbers and win better wages and benefits for average workers, whose pay has stagnated in the last eight years.

"In an economy that gives corporations far too much power, a union card remains the single best ticket into the middle class," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Union membership has dropped from 20 percent to 12 percent of all U.S. workers over for the past quarter century.

The Employee Free Choice Act, which would require employers to recognize unions once a majority of workers sign cards of support, is fiercely opposed by business groups that argue the measure would cost jobs and further weaken the nation's economy.

Currently, employers can demand that workers hold secret-ballot elections to determine whether to form unions, something labor organizers say allows companies to run campaigns that pressure workers into voting against organizing. At the same time, business leaders say the so-called "check card" legislation would deny workers a secret ballot, leaving them vulnerable to being coerced into supporting the formation of a union.

The battle over the measure promises to be one of the early tests of the Obama presidency. Obama has strongly endorsed the legislation, which he has called part of an overdue effort to raise the standard of living for the nation's working class. But with the economy in tatters, some business leaders are stepping up their argument against the measure, saying that now is not the time to put new burdens on business.

"The day President Obama takes office, the bets are that he would inherit between a $750 billion and a $1 trillion annual deficit," said Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "You have to get the economy off its back and growing, not contracting; growing jobs, not shedding jobs."

Business leaders also object to a provision in the legislation that would allow a federal mediator to impose a contract settlement in cases where a union and management cannot agree on a deal within 120 days -- a provision business leaders say will benefit unions.

Labor leaders also plan to push the Obama administration to move quickly on efforts to stimulate the economy by extending unemployment benefits, broadening the food stamp program, investing in infrastructure, and making grants to state and local governments, which have been hard hit by revenue losses from the economic downturn. Labor is also looking to the incoming administration to broaden the availability of health-care coverage and eventually increase taxes for top income earners as a way of countering the income inequality that has accelerated in the past eight years.

"It is a question of how are we going to restore middle-class families' ability to own homes, have health care, and imagine retiring with dignity," said Andrew L. Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, an AFL-CIO rival.

The AFL-CIO made clear that its massive outreach efforts, which the union said touched 13 million households in 24 battleground states, paid off in strong support for Obama and other Democrats. That support was particularly striking among white working-class voters, who were thought to be skeptical of the nation's first black major party presidential nominee.

Exit poll data gathered for the AFL-CIO by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found that among union members, Obama won the white male vote by 18 points, while he lost that same group in the general population by 16 points. There were also wide disparities in support for Obama between union and non-union voters who are white weekly churchgoers, veterans, gun owners and whites who have not graduated from college. Union members supported him in each case, while he lost each group in the general population, the poll found.

Beyond their direct support for Obama, more than 250,000 AFL-CIO volunteers campaigned for Obama, helping him win in such swing states as Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

"People volunteered because they want a president who will fight for America's working families," said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "In the critical battleground states, workers gave Sen. Obama the winning edge."

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