Political Wind Blowing Against Unions


Investor’s Business Daily
Issues & Insights Section
April 27, 2009


Politics: When Barack Obama won the election, Big Labor’s ambitions soared. It spent $400 million to elect Democrats and expected an easy ride ahead. A hundred days into the Obama administration, it’s playing defense.

Organized labor has only itself to blame. With goals at odds with the interests of the country, it should have adapted itself to the national direction or else localized its aims.

But that’s not the approach it took. In varying ways, the two largest confederations, the AFL-CIO and the Change To Win coalition, focused on two unpopular efforts.

One is the coercive Employee Free Choice Act, also known as “card check,” which deprives workers of the right to secret ballot in union elections. The other is halting the U.S.-Colombia free-trade pact, citing violence against labor unions in that country (though violence against unionists there is down 87% since 2002, and lower than the rate against nonunion members).

Both positions led to laid-off workers, like the 20,000 from Caterpillar pleading for free trade, and to the hiring freezes that occurred as employers tried to fend off the threat of card check. Now, it looks like Big Labor isn’t going to win on any of its aims. It has been curiously silent about it, and some of its blogs have gone quiet.

A series of political signals in Washington suggests that labor’s clout is waning, however.

On card check, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., withdrew support for the bill as written on March 25. The left-leaning senator sided with the job creators. His change of heart guaranteed that Senate Democrats would not have the 60 votes needed to ward off an expected GOP filibuster of the measure. He effectively killed it.

Labor isn’t giving up. But its strongest Senate acolyte, Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat from Ohio, now says he expects rewritten legislation, including some semblance of a secret ballot for workers, on the condition that union elections be held swiftly. It’s a defensive move by Brown to save some features of the bill.

Meanwhile, another top union supporter, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, distanced herself from card check too.

Solis declared she supported the Employee Free Choice Act but would leave it to Congress to determine how to get the measure through. She effectively said she wasn’t going to expend political capital on it. That means that, as a seasoned politician, she understands the bill is a loser.

On Colombia, Big Labor’s decline in clout looks advanced, indeed. This month, two Congressional delegations with trade-friendly Democrats, one led by Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, and the other led by New York Rep. Eliot Engel, paid visits to Colombia’s leaders. By all accounts, the visits were encouraging.

The Engel delegation was particularly encouraging, because it included New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, point man in getting the recent Peru free-trade agreement through against all odds. His rapport with Colombian officials suggests he’s not particularly afraid of the opinion of the anti-trade crowd back home.

It’s impossible to assess a precise tipping point for this shift in the political wind toward trade and against union initiatives, but there are some possibilities:

Signs of economic recovery tend to reduce the lure of protectionism and collectivism.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk is a rising star who is educating the public about trade.

The auto industry bailout drew attention to the union role in driving the Big Three into trouble. The union refused to do its share to keep the companies solvent, and there was a renewed focus on work rules that foster laziness and make labor membership unbearable to many.

Unions failed to get card check passed before its provision for ending the secret ballot became widely known. They no longer have time on their side.

A lack of free-trade pacts with Colombia, Korea and Panama hurts U.S. exports and job creation.

It’s too soon to call Big Labor finished as a force, but right now it’s regrouping. If it wishes to maintain, or even increase, its influence, it would do well to align its goals with the direction the country is moving in.

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