Retreating on Card Check For The Bigger Victory

Like many of Obama’s supporters, I do not share the traditional Democratic Party ties to labor, and like George McGovern, I see no reason to allow the Republicans to take the high ground on an issue as fundamental as the secret ballot. While Democrats will continue to support the legitimate rights of workers to voluntarily organize and seek to improve their living conditions, the day might be over when the Democratic Party is in the pocket of organized labor.

Card check has allowed Republicans to disguise their opposition to voluntary organization by workers as support for democracy. I suspect that Obama, who often manages to transcend the traditional left-right divides, is beginning to question the wisdom of making card check the key point of the debate. The Washington Post described their interview with Obama:

On the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow unions to organize by obtaining a majority of signatures from employees in a workplace rather than having to win secret-ballot elections, Mr. Obama signaled willingness to consider other mechanisms to address the concern that employers unfairly use the current process to intimidate workers not to join unions. And he seemed in no hurry to have Congress bring it up. “If we’re losing half a million jobs a month, then there are no jobs to unionize, so my focus first is on those key economic priority items,” Mr. Obama said, declining to state whether he wanted to see the issue debated during his first year in office.

Others on the left are beginning to realize that card check should not be where the battle lines are drawn. Via Steve Benen, T.A. Frank raises such concerns in The Washington Monthly:

The question, then, is how much of a fight the card check provision merits. And the answer is probably a little, but not a lot. What most undermines the secret-ballot process is that employers can violate the law in numerous ways without consequences. Under EFCA, however, every illegal action has the potential to be costly, so firings, spying, threats, or other forms of intimidation would be less likely. Also, there is an alternative way to preserve the secret ballot while guarding against company malfeasance: expedited elections. Under current law, months can go by between when NLRB announces the results of a card check vote and when a secret-ballot election is held. If, however, this campaign window were reduced to just a few days, employers would have less opportunity to intimidate union supporters into changing their minds. Workers I spoke to in Lancaster seemed content with this alternative. And some savvy people in the labor movement I spoke to feel the same way — provided that employers either refrain from captive-audience campaigning or else grant union members equal access to the workplace during a campaign.

Given that card check is substantively minor, why has it come to define the entire debate about EFCA in Washington? Because it is the one element of the bill that its opponents can object to and still seem principled — it’s easier to stand up for “democracy” than for the right of companies to break labor laws without consequence. And all of this factors into the gamesmanship that’s likely to take place on Capitol Hill over EFCA. Commentators like Marc Ambinder have called the fight “a quandary” for Democrats, one that carries a risk of disastrous failure. But must it come to that? Deploying political capital wisely means fighting over what matters most, not what matters least. Perhaps the bill’s proponents in Congress intend to stand firm in their defense of the card check provision of EFCA. But if they strategically retreat, at just the right moment, like a matador lifting his red cape, will liberals accuse Democrats of selling out labor? Or will they realize that, with or without card check, EFCA will still accomplish what’s most needed — finally, at long last, restoring the rights of workers who seek to organize?

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