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Labor Squanders Opportunities on 'Card Check' and a Health-Care Public Option

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By Ruth Marcus
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fewer than half of Americans -- 48 percent -- approve of labor unions, down from 59 percent a year ago, according to a new Gallup poll. That number is the lowest since Gallup started asking the question in 1936. Only 12.4 percent of workers -- and just 7.6 percent of those in the private sector -- belong to unions, down from 20 percent in 1983.

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Happy Labor Day.

Both sets of numbers are distressing for those who, like me, believe in the importance of a vigorous labor movement. But labor can be its own worst enemy, operating as if its guiding motto were: "Letting the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good Until It's Too Late."

This ought to be a happy moment for labor, notwithstanding the economic crisis. After eight years in the political wilderness during the Bush administration, it has a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president. It seems poised to squander that opportunity. Maybe it has already.

Start with labor's top legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act. When it comes to organizing workplaces, the legal playing field has tipped too heavily against unions. Employers can intimidate workers out of supporting a union with something close to impunity. Enforcement of the law against such conduct has been minimal, with penalties that are too mild and in any event far too late to deter strong-arm tactics. If a union wins recognition, employers can get away with seemingly endless bargaining without reaching a contract, reinforcing their argument to workers that the union won't do them any good after all.

There are any number of ways to improve this situation: meaningful enforcement and enhanced penalties for obstructing unions from organizing or for failing to bargain in good faith. Speeding up the election process so that employers don't have weeks to browbeat workers. Giving unions more access to employees to make their case for joining.

Labor, however, decided to stake it all on what it describes as "majority signup" and what business calls "card check" -- a provision that would let unions be recognized if a majority of workers sign cards indicating their support. Business mounted a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign against what it portrayed as an un-American assault on election by secret ballot. Labor insisted on the provision, even though it did not have the necessary 60 votes in the Senate.

The debate over health care intervened, and now labor finds itself in a fix, with the time for action this year running out. Having insisted for months -- for years, actually -- that the card-check provision is central to improving the law, it is belatedly backing off and defining success downward. "It may, it may not be" part of the final legislation, the AFL-CIO's president in waiting, Richard Trumka, told a breakfast gathering sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor last week. The new essentials, according to Trumka, are increased penalties, stepped-up enforcement and some kind of dispute resolution mechanism to make certain that contracts aren't delayed indefinitely.

In other words, exactly the kind of approach that AFL-CIO leaders once said was unacceptable without card check. If labor had been willing to make this kind of deal in the early spring, it might have had a new labor law in place by now. Now, it will be lucky if Congress acts this year, and prospects are uncertain for action on legislation this controversial in an election year.

Now, the same drama is playing itself out on health care -- albeit this time with more of a public split among labor leaders.

Even as President Obama and other administration officials have signaled that they might need to abandon the public option, Trumka drew a line in the sand. "We won't support a bill if it doesn't have the public option in it," he said at a briefing last week. "Let me be as clear as I can be -- it's an absolute must."

It's hard for me to understand why this is the right line to draw -- especially for labor, whose workers are in group plans and would not be covered by a public option -- or why this is the right time to draw it. How does Trumka back down from this absolutist stance?

On Friday, James Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and no friend of Trumka, took a different position in an interview with Al Hunt on Bloomberg Television. Hoffa said the absence of a public option is "not a deal-killer." Rather, he said, "we've got to find out what's doable. I think it's important to get something done this time and declare a victory."

Well, there's a new motto for labor. If it could implement this approach, there might even be something to celebrate next Labor Day.

marcusr@washpost.com


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