Labor Joins Sestak In Pressuring Specter

April 30, 2009 2:40 pm

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) may be a lone critic of Sen. Arlen Specter among Pennsylvania Democrats and party leaders, but if he looks past his colleagues he’ll find a natural (though perhaps convenient and temporary) friend in labor. For now, Sestak is sending warning shots at Specter, pressuring him to get with the program, and groups like AFL-CIO and SEIU are doing the exact same thing. Especially vis-a-vis issues like health care and employee free choice.

Officially, AFL-CIO say they “look forward to continuing an open and honest debate with Senator Specter about the issues that are important to Pennsylvania and America.”

“Sen. Specter,” they say, “has said all along that he recognizes the need to reform our broken labor law system and we will continue to work with Congress to give workers back the freedom to form and join unions and pass legislation that stays true to the principals of the Employee free Choice Act.”

And their Pennsylvania president agrees.

But Stewart Acuff, AFL-CIO’s Director of Organizing hasn’t been so timid.“The labor movement,” he said, “will re-double our already overwhelming efforts in Pennsylvania to convince the Senator to once again support the bill that he was a co-sponsor of in the last Congress.”

Labor is re-energized by his decision. Grassroots union activity–already at a fever pitch–is escalating even more….

For any Democrat to side with Corporate America and the radical rightwing against the labor movement and the Employee Free Choice Act today when it is clear that Corporate America and the radical rightwing are responsible for running the American economy into the ditch, are responsible for the highest inequality since 1929, are responsible for the meltdown of our economy, for 30 years of stagnant and declining wages, for our healthcare crisis, and for the squeeze on the Middle Class is inexcusable.

Here’s what SEIU’s President, Andy Stern, wrote in a memo to the union’s Pennsylvania members.

We applaud the Senator on showing the political courage we know it took to change parties–and to move to a place we believe is more closely aligned with his personal convictions. But SEIU has always been an organization that supports candidates and elected officials based on their commitment to working families, not their party labels.

The issues that face working people in Pennsylvania have not changed, and the support we need from our representatives in Congress hasn’t changed, either.

We know there have been contradictory and confusing reports about what Senator Specter’s decision means for the priorities of working families in our state. In a word: our fight for Employee Free Choice and quality, affordable healthcare continues, as strong as ever.

Specter, though, isn’t exactly as committed to employee free choice as, say, the unions are. In fact, he said last month that he plans to vote no on the bill. But of course, that was when he was still a Republican–a Republican tacking to the right to protect himself from a primary challenge by conservative Pat Toomey. Now everything’s different and he’s suddenly dealing with the fact that he made a number of commitments as a Republican that are proving both difficult to keep and hard to duck as a Democrat. Yesterday, for instance, he kicked things off by announcing his support for the President’s agenda, and then joined all of his former caucus members in voting no on the budget. Because that’s how he voted on an earlier version of it a month ago.

As time goes on, though, he’ll be able to (ahem) ease away from those commitments, or figure out ways around them.

He could buy himself some leeway, for example, by vocally supporting the President’s health care plan. Or, perhaps, he could vote for–or even help devise–a compromise on EFCA that appeases conservative Democrats and unions alike. That’ll be a hard line to walk, of course. AFL-CIO say their legislative priorities include a binding majority sign-up process, so the “compromise” would probably have to be pretty cosmetic. And if the changes prove too drastic, or if Specter proves to be generally too intransigent between now and next year, labor may end up supporting a primary challenger.

But, obviously, Specter will cast a lot of votes between now and then, and a million other events might intercede. So everything, in other words, still very much up in the air.

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