Rep. Heath Shuler - North Carolina DINO

Related story: "Public opinion survey on card-check"

Democrat wants to end secret-ballot union elections

After the House passes the Employee Free Choice Act, everything becomes a matter of hard work, said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's Legislative Director in an interview after the federation’s post-election press conference on Nov. 8. Still, Samuel admitted, “It will be nice to be playing offense for the first time in my career.”

Samuel and other union legislative representatives will get the chance “to play offense” after the nation’s voters ousted the GOP-run House in favor of a 230-196 Democratic majority there, with nine seats still too close to call. The House had been 230-201 GOP, with one Democratic-leading independent and three vacancies.

And Democrats went from trailing 55-44 in the Senate, with a Democratic-leaning independent, to a 51-49 edge, including two pro-Democratic independents. The margin came from the last, closest race: James Webb (D) beat Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).

“I think it’s clearly a mandate for a union agenda, and for addressing the amount of frustration we found” among unionists and other voters on the campaign trail, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said of the election returns.

“They’re holding the politicians accountable on these issues as well as on the war” in Iraq. Sweeney repeated the federation’s demand for “rapid” withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Many of the new House Democrats are from normally Republican districts in states such as Kansas and North Carolina. Those Democrats are expected to be “Blue Dogs,” more conservative than Democratic leaders who come from union-heavy areas. Samuel says the equation is not so simple.

“I think there’s a mistaken impression about the ‘Blue Dogs,’ that they’re conservative on all matters,” he said. They may be more conservative than their colleagues on national security and on issues such as abortion, but not on economic issues, he stated.

“They all signed on to the EFCA, for example,” he said, citing Rep.-elect Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), who beat a longtime incumbent in western North Carolina’s mountains.

EFCA had 215 co-sponsors, including seven Republicans, in the departing GOP House.

Shuler himself made clear that at least on workers’ issues, he was with labor. In a Nov. 8 telephone press conference with the Steel Workers, Shuler declared he would oppose any so-called “free trade” agreements that cost his constituents jobs. Shuler’s district includes a large unionized paper mill.

It used to have unionized textile mills, too, but “North Carolina lost 78 percent of our textile jobs to unfair trade agreements, and trade was a hot button issue in every single county. (GOP Rep. Charles) Taylor walked on CAFTA and did not cast a vote.”

Samuel predicted the new House would easily pass EFCA, which would help level the playing field between workers and management in union drives. Among other things, EFCA outlaws anti-union “captive audience” meetings, writes card-check recognition of unions into law--some GOPers wanted to outlaw card check--increases labor law fines and mandates arbitration should the sides not agree on a first contract.

The prime House sponsor of the law--originally drafted by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.)--is Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who will chair the House Educa-tion and the Workforce Committee. The prime Senate sponsor is veteran Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) who will chair the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Miller and Kennedy easily won re-election on Nov. 7.

But the Senate is the problem for EFCA, Samuel explained. That’s because the GOP would still have enough votes, 49, to filibuster the legislation to death.

“You need 60 votes in the Senate, and we lost one moderate Republican there, Lincoln Chafee” of Rhode Island, beaten by former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse (D), Samuel admitted.

Still, with the GOP in the minority, and bearing in mind the election results, other Republicans in both the House and the Senate “may be reading the tea leaves” on EFCA and other workers’ issues, Samuel said. That includes the minimum wage.

The AFL-CIO’s goal there was emblazoned in a large poster on the wall at the post-election press conference: A $2.10 hourly increase in the wage, which has been stuck at $5.15 for a decade.

As for filibusters against EFCA, "We’ll face up to that issue when we come to it,” Sweeney noted.

“We also don’t have the high public profile on EFCA that we have on raising the minimum wage, for example. And we hope to build it,” Samuel concluded.


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