If the Democrats hold both houses of the U.S. Congress and take the White House in the 2008 elections, America’s struggling unions plan to trade their political support for a raft of labor-friendly bills.
“It’s early to say but if the Democrats were to take the presidency,” as well as Congress, said Bill Samuel, legislation director of the AFL-CIO labor federation, “this could be an opportunity for historic change.”
Analysts say Big Labor will push for legislation to make forming unions easier, restrict free-trade pacts, raise corporate taxes and reform the creaking health-care system.
“There is a real threat the Democrats may take the White House and extend their majorities in the House and Senate with the support of the unions,” said Brian Darling, a congressional analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“In return, the Democrats would push measures like another minimum wage hike or no new free trade agreements that would be bad for the U.S. economy,” Darling said.
“We are at a pivotal moment where the American people want to provide security and jobs for the next generation,” said Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.
Like the 10-million-member AFL-CIO, the 1.9-million-member SEIU says it is planning the “biggest mobilization” in the U.S. labor movement’s history ahead of the 2008 elections.
Falling membership is one of Big Labor’s biggest worries. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that union membership — public and private unions — fell to 12.5 percent of the U.S. work force in 2005 from 20.1 percent in 1983.
Ken Goldstein, labor economist at The Conference Board, a corporate network, calls that downward trend irreversible.
“The days when the unions represented one in four or five American workers are gone for good,” he said. “Legislation won’t help. What the unions need is to overcome office workers’ hostility to joining a union.”
But unions cite evidence such as a December 2006 national survey by Peter Hart Research indicating that 53 percent of U.S. workers — 60 million — would join a union if they could.
Unions claim a big reason is a broken system for forming unions, which they say intimidates and discourages organizing.
The remedy, they say, has already been introduced — and is stuck — in Congress: the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).
This bill would make it easier for workers to unionize using the “card check” system: they could form a union by signing a card rather than, as now, holding a vote.
Unions see EFCA as a difference-making tool to organize at high-profile companies like package delivery company FedEx Corp. FedEx competes with UPS, whose labor deal with more than 230,000 workers represented by the Teamsters union is the single largest U.S. private sector contract.
EFCA was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives with 241 votes in March and, on a procedural motion, garnered 51 votes in the Senate in June. But the White House has made it clear President George W. Bush will veto the legislation.
CONGRESS MAJORITIES ARE NOT ENOUGH
The 2006 elections swept Democrats into power in the 110th Congress. But on many issues, from Iraq to children’s health care to the environment, simple Democratic majorities have been stymied by the congressional rules on vetoes and filibusters.
Two-thirds majorities are needed to overcome presidential vetoes — 290 votes in the House and 67 in the Senate. The Democrats control 233 votes in the House and 51 in Senate.
But analysts say even with a Democrat in the White House after 2008 and extended congressional majorities, the key roadblock for labor-friendly laws will remain the Senate.
Rules there allow only 41 members to prevent filibusters from ending, a keystone of minority power that, ironically, Republicans tried to cancel in 2005 amid Democratic opposition to Bush judicial nominations. Now the tables are turned.
“The Republicans have shown they can use the filibuster very effectively,” said Jacob Hacker, a political science professor at Yale University. “The party will continue to do so when it comes to labor-friendly bills.”
Economist Jared Bernstein at Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, said 2008 may help Democrats woo GOP lawmakers away from stances held by Bush ahead of elections.
“If they show a willingness to compromise on this and other bills they may be able to avoid a filibuster,” he said.
But Hacker was not that optimistic.
“The Senate vastly over-represents union-unfriendly, rural states,” he said. “Unions would be better off channeling energy into boosting membership on a local level than trying to surmount the legislative hurdle of the filibuster.”