The Magazine

Big Labor, Big Plans

Unions look to cash in after '08.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
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Organized labor did well in the new Democratic Congress, winning a hike in the minimum wage and impeding the free trade treaties backed by President Bush. (The Peru trade deal passed this week, but it was held up for months by Democrats, as the South Korea, Columbia, and Panama deals continue to be.) But these victories are small compared with what labor leaders expect to gain in 2009 if a Democrat wins the White House and the party makes gains in the Senate and the House. And they are preparing to give lavishly to the 2008 campaigns.

The AFL-CIO is planning to spend $53.4 million on get-out-the-vote efforts during the 2008 campaign, according to the Wall Street Journal. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is aiming for $60 million. (Both organizations budgeted only $48 million in 2004.) The top spender in the 2004 election, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), also plans to exceed its 2004 budget of $65 million.

The prize for the unions is the card check system, which would allow a union to be established at a workplace by a simple majority of workers signing cards agreeing to unionization. At present, employees can form a union only after support is demonstrated through a secret ballot election. Unions win only about half of these elections. The card check system would in practice do away with any privacy in the individual decision to unionize.

Big Labor sees card checks as their chance at revitalization. In 1983, 20 percent of American workers were unionized; in 2006 it was down to 12 percent (36.2 percent of public sector workers and 7.4 percent of private). Card checks would increase the number of union members and are expected to almost double the size of unions' coffers. Rick Berman of the Center for Union Facts predicts that the unions could be "conservatively sitting on another $5 billion in dues money."

The card check system was the main objective of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), defeated earlier this year in Congress. The measure passed the House by a vote of 241 to 185, but it was defeated in the Senate soundly with a cloture vote of 51 to 48, nine votes shy of the tally required to end debate. "We got closer than we ever have before," said Stephanie Mueller, assistant director of communications for the SEIU. "We're optimistic that EFCA will pass in the next Congress." Democrats only have a remote chance of picking up nine seats in the 2008 election, but a Democrat in the White House would brighten EFCA's prospects. All three leading Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed the card check system.

The act would exponentially increase organized labor's power on the political scene. Much of the new money would be poured into political campaigns and lobbying efforts. Organized labor would be "by far the largest political-financial institution in the country with an extremely left-leaning agenda," says Berman.

And then there is EFCA's mandatory arbitration requirement. After 90 days of contract negotiations, if either party calls for mediation, the government steps in. If another 30 days pass, a government-appointed arbitrator sets the wages, benefits, and advancement and grievance policies. "The government would come in and pick winners and losers in an industry," says Berman.

Business and trade associations hope they will still be able to court moderate Democrats, like those in the Blue Dog Coalition, and win a few battles. But many Democratic congressmen are indebted to Big Labor for their seats.

Unions poured $57.6 million into Democratic races in 2006 in individual donations and PAC contributions. Freshmen Blue Dog Democrats benefited significantly. Brad Ellsworth from Indiana's Eighth District received $316,100 from labor unions. Baron Hill of Indiana's Ninth District got $272,800. Nick Lampson of Texas's Twenty-Second District was given $292,050. Tim Mahoney from the Sixteenth District of Florida garnered $240,250, and Heath Shuler of North Carolina's Eleventh District got $273,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. All of them voted in favor of EFCA. The money could easily be funneled to alternative primary candidates in the next cycle if unions' expectations aren't met.

Beyond EFCA, Big Labor's priorities include a universal health care system, which could give unions more leeway in bargaining for higher wages and other benefits; continued blockage of trade bills; collective bargaining rights for Transportation Security Administration workers; and a further rise in the minimum wage.