Is Obama Serious about Card Check?

One of the issues we’ll be following in the new administration is the EFCA or, as it’s more commonly known, “card check.” The bill would make it much easier for unions to organize and already its defeat is the rallying cry for business groups inside the Beltway who agree on little else. I argue in favor of the bill in the latest issue of Condé Nast Portfolio and so does T.A. Frank in The Washington Monthly (although with less enthusiasm) where I’m an alumnus and contributing editor. I’m not willing to give unions a free ride on their many mistakes or excesses over the years but on balance I think the playing field has been tilted against union organizing and EFCA would help arrest the decline in union membership.

Thus far, EFCA opponents have won the battle for elite opinion. The Washington Post has weighed in against the measure as has George McGovern who is surely a bygone figure but whose condemnation of the bill has been used by the right to great effect as proof that the measure is way outside the mainstream. In fact, if you talk to labor advocates, they’ll concede that anti-EFCA ads like this one and these ones have been very effective, at least with the chattering classes, in portraying to the bill as anti-democratic. In fact, if anyone has been more guilty of intimidation over the years its been the corporations trying to crush union organizing.

“They’ve done a good job,” says one labor ally characterizing the business opposition. As for the larger public, there’s some debate over whether the public is pro or anti-EFCA.I suspect few folks really know about it but in general the public is in a pro-union mood. “The public doesn’t really know about this bill even in the states where business groups made huge ad buys about it. That’s good for us. We’re arguing jobs and the economy. They’re arguing work rules,” said the source.

The question that EFCA-watchers want to know is how committed the administration is to getting the bill passed. As Senator, Barack Obama was one of the EFCA sponsors and has spoken out in support of it as has Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the daughter of a Teamsters shop steward (her father) and a United Rubber Workers union member (her mom). But the question had been whether Obama really expend political capital for the bill and will Democrats see defections in their ranks.

Last time the bill came up for a vote, it passed the House but a threatened Republican filibuster killed the bill in the Senate. But all Senate Democrats supported it, as did Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. So now that the Democrats have a large, but not filibuster-proof majority, what will happen? Will the likes of the new freshman Senators back the measure? (All of them publicly supported it during their campaigns save Mark Warner who didn’t take a position.) Will Specter stick with it? Will some of the Dems who did not vote to override the filibuster like Mark Pryor go wobbly? Pryor’s office, a spokesperson told me, is open to amendments. “He’d be more for it if there was a process for considering amendments,” said Pryor spokesperson Lisa Ackerman. Specter may have more breathing room to support the bill now that he won’t face a Republican primary challenge from Club for Growth Leader and former Pennsylvania Congressman Pat Toomey.

Labor officials now believe that the bill will come up in the Spring, perhaps May or June, and that the administration and the president will indeed fight for it.

While the White House has been somewhat chastened by the vigorous campaign against the bill, with some officials privately fearing that it could be their “gays in the military,” the president, labor leaders believe, is committed to pushing forward with his support of EFCA and hopes to sign it into law this year.

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