Harkin had the votes to pass Employee Free Choice Act

I mentioned on Labor Day that I haven’t heard much lately about Senator Tom Harkin’s efforts to reach a compromise on the Employee Free Choice Act. The EFCA is one of the top legislative priorities for organized labor and needs 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster. Several Democrats who supported the bill in 2007, knowing that President Bush would veto it, either oppose the bill or have dodged the question this year.

Harkin has been the lead Senate negotiator on EFCA and is replacing the late Senator Ted Kennedy as chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Speaking to the American Rights at Work group yesterday, Harkin said he had 60 votes lined up behind a compromise this summer:

“As of July, I can tell you this openly and I know the press is all here but we had worked out a pretty good agreement. […]”

Harkin said prominent labor leaders were on board with the deal, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

“That’s when we needed 60 votes and that’s when I called to get Sen. Kennedy down because we needed him for three days. That’s when Dr. [Lawrence] Horowitz told me that he couldn’t make it,” Harkin said.

The Hill’s Kevin Bogardus reported that Harkin refused to specify the terms of the compromise deal:

“I will not say because it was closely held, it never leaked out and it still hasn’t,” Harkin said. “I took it off the front-burner and put it on the back-burner so it is still on warm, OK?”

In May Harkin suggested that the “card check” provision might be dropped from the bill in favor of other changes to labor election procedures. He did not say anything about binding arbitration, which is also an important part of the EFCA.

If Massachusetts law is changed to allow Governor Deval Patrick to appoint a temporary replacement for Kennedy, then Harkin may be able to revive this compromise and pass the EFCA this fall. Democratic leaders in the House agreed earlier this year not to bring the EFCA up for a vote until the measure had passed the Senate. Getting the bill through the House should not be difficult, even if a substantial number of Blue Dog Democrats vote no.

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Senator Franken making us proud already

The first bill Senator Al Franken co-sponsored after being sworn in yesterday was the Employee Free Choice Act. It’s a cause Paul Wellstone would have supported strongly. (Click here for background on the EFCA.)

The Hill reported yesterday,

As expected, Franken has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee, Indian Affairs Committee and Aging Committee. He will also sit on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee once the panel finishes marking up the healthcare reform legislation.

I don’t understand the logic of making Franken wait until after the health care bill markup before joining the HELP Committee, but at least he will be there when the Employee Free Choice Act is debated.

Getting to 60 votes on the EFCA will be a challenge, but Senator Tom Harkin has been working on a compromise since March. He told Bloomberg News in May that the “card check” provision may have to be dropped from the EFCA in order to get the bill through the Senate. “Card check” means that workers could form a union if a majority sign a document stating that they would like to join a union. Harkin suggested that a compromise bill might incorporate other changes to the election process and procedures for forming a labor union.

In that interview, Harkin did not mention whether binding arbitration would be a part of a workable compromise. Some people consider binding arbitration provisions to be as important a part of the EFCA as card check.

Whatever compromise Harkin crafts, I’m glad to know that Franken will be a voice for strong labor reform on the HELP Committee. I can’t wait to go hear Franken keynote Harkin’s steak fry on September 13.

UPDATE: Harkin’s communications director Kate Cyrul told Iowa Independent that Harkin is still working on this bill and expects the EFCA to pass this year.

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Is Obama committed to fighting for unions?

Barack Obama promised during his presidential campaign to “finally make the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land.”

So why did I read this in today’s Washington Post?

The president-elect also gave his support for legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize, but he said there may be other ways to achieve the same goal without angering businesses. And while many Democrats on Capitol Hill are eager to see a quick vote on that bill, he indicated no desire to rush into the contentious issue.

“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 I just mentioned,” he said. “Let’s see what the legislative docket looks like.”

Marc Ambinder has the exact wording of Obama’s answer, which the Washington Post paraphrased.

A lot of labor unions backed Obama during the primaries, and even more backed him during the general election campaign. Unions were there for Obama when he needed them. Now, they need him to follow through on his promise.

This diary by TomP lays out the very strong case for passing the Employee Free Choice Act.

Why do we need to dance around looking for some way to help unions without angering businesses? Obama won the election and has high approval ratings. Democrats enlarged their Congressional majorities. Now is the time for the president to spend his political capital on getting good laws through Congress.

Setting the policy merits aside for the moment, this is a poor negotiating strategy.

By announcing before taking office that his goal is to help unions without arousing intense opposition from businesses, Obama has just given the business lobby every incentive to raise hell about even the most innocuous bill to support workers’ rights.

He should not have telegraphed that he is willing to sacrifice the Employee Free Choice Act if necessary. You never announce before negotiations begin what concessions you are willing to make. (For more on Obama’s negotiating strategy so far, read this diary by bruh3.)

In any event, there isn’t going to be some magical bill that would make it significantly easier for workers to organize, but which the business lobby would take in stride. They will fight every bill perceived as pro-labor, and they will claim that it will cost jobs, just like they fought any number of good laws, from minimum wage increases to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Here’s hoping that incoming Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (a passionate supporter of the EFCA) will be able to strengthen Obama’s resolve to fight for this bill.

By the way, American Rights at Work just launched a major tv advertising campaign in support of the EFCA and has a petition you can sign if you care about this issue.

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