Battle over Labor Law Reform Shows True Power of the Right

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Some people may enjoy watching the Right thrash around trying to find its way in the Obama Age, but I take the election results and their aftermath as a sign of a country dangerously divided. There really was a stark difference in the major party candidates, and 46 percent voted for the guy who lost. 59,946,378 is a lot of people. This political force isn’t going away.

During the McCarthy Era of the early 1950s, the anticommunist movement fed off of disgruntled Republicans who could not accept that huge influential chunks of their party accepted the New Deal and the role of the government in regulating capitalism. They saw America’s new regulations and modest aid for people tossed by harsh business cycles as outright property theft and communism. That the New Deal asserted federal power over the states could mean only a loss of political sovereignty and American liberty. Feeling disenfranchised not just by Washington but parts of their own party, the Republican Right created an alternative universe of betrayal, suspicion, and conspiracy.

This spring’s tea party protestors reveled in the language of the Old Right, the same language warning of incipient socialism that Republican operatives rolled out in their attempt to defeat Obama in 2008 and that television and radio pundit Sean Hannity channels from some strange archaic source. The news stories and photos told the story:

The audience, which was quite large despite a heavy rain, was told that Obama was leading the country toward “dictatorship.” The government, we were told, was creating a crisis “100 times as grim as 9/11,” the people were being “brainwashed” into complacency by the media and soon “the face of big brother will be exposed and the slogans of a classless one party system are revealed to us.” [1]

In a desperate search for relevance to its shrinking electoral base. the Republican Party embraced the language of suspicion, conspiracy, and betrayal. Far from pushing the conspiracy-minded away in hopes of finding a vital center, Newt Gingrich and other GOP beltway heavies threw their weight behind the anti-Obama, anti-tax “tea parties,” and Republican congressmen, mayoral candidates and the like lined up to speak even though many protestors despised them as much as the Democrats.

In their scramble, neither the Republican Party nor Christian Right organizations like Focus on the Family have a pretty face to put on their politics. No Ronald Reagan, not even a George W. Bush with folksy mannerisms disarming the nation. But the question is not who will be the next Republican savior or the new Ralph Reed deploying marketing intelligence and beltway connections for his Christian Coalition. The question is whether the Right’s institutions are strong enough even in the wake of electoral defeat for them to win key victories in such areas as health and workers’ rights that ensure reactionary dominance of the sectors progressives need to move the country closer to justice. The answer to that question is clearly yes. Don’t be distracted by the tea parties and think that only Fox News zealots are left to fight on core issues.

To see the huge economic and ideological resources at the Right’s disposal, you need only look at the wavering chances of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it easier to organize a union and actually get a contract. The bill would let workers form a union if a majority sign cards saying they want one, taking away the power of employers to ignore the cards and demand secret ballot elections instead. It also pushes the contract negotiations into binding arbitration after 90 days if talks are fruitless, since companies that don’t beat unions at the ballot box often do by stalling at the negotiating table. Now they would have incentive to close the bargain.

But one by one, the business lobby has peeled back crucial support from Democrats so that the heart of the bill, “card check,” is in jeopardy. To counter both union donations to Congress and the overwhelming support of Americans for unions, they pump ready money at southern Democrats like Senator Blanche Lincoln of WalMart’s home state of Arkansas and insinuate with $20 million worth of propaganda that union thugs will become Americans’ new slavemasters and take away their freedoms. [2]

The corporations opposing EFCA had no trouble getting Republicans to vote against it since the White men who tend to vote Democratic also tend to be union members. White men in unions went for Obama by 18 points, when White men in general went for his opponent by 16 points. [3] You don’t need donations from WalMart or Home Depot to convince you to get on board, if you are a Republican counting votes.

Nor do you want to give unions the ideological advantage in a downturn when people wonder, maybe for the first time, whether companies really have their best interests at heart and whether they as individuals really have the economic power to control their own lives.

So here, at least, the bickering Republicans are in lockstep. They are backed by the smears and power politics of venerable union busters like WalMart and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—not as warm and fuzzy as you might think from your local Chamber dinners—and outright front groups like lobbyist Richard Berman’s propaganda mills with names like Center for Union Facts and Employee Freedom Action Committee. [4]

“We need to make sure every worker has the freedom to choose what’s best for themselves and their families,” is a typical line. EFCA will “take away free and fair democratic elections,” charge Berman and the Chamber of Commerce. [5] You would think they were labor’s champions from all the patriotic red blooded language they use.

But the faux populist language works its charm, even though corporate funded PR men created it in the first place. When Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter announced he would no longer back the labor legislation, he used language lifted right out of their press releases, saying giving workers not their employers the right to decide whether to have secret ballot elections or card check violates “the cornerstone of our democracy.”

Did the news that almost a third of companies being organized fire workers trying to unionize—an undemocratic violation of the secret balloting process—reach him? Specter did notice that it is undemocratic for companies to drag out the election process so long that 40 percent of elections never take place. He is now negotiating a compromise that drops “card check” but also would require the election within three weeks of the union filing. [6]

Tying together the tea parties and the anti-EFCA battle are not just the Republicans and their donors but the new group Americans for Prosperity, a rabid free market outfit launched in 2003 with the help of Kansas billionaire David Koch. His family’s Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation joins with corporate and other longtime funders of right-wing institutions like the Bradley Foundation to support 24 national staff in Washington, and 41 regional staff working in 19 states. [7] Together they managed to summon 400,000 signatures on a petition opposing Obama’s stimulus package, so the group has some heft.

Along with sponsoring local tea parties, Americans for Prosperity created a “Save My Secret Ballot” tour of the states that will probably feed into a ballot campaign to bar card check through changes in state constitutions. Its “Hot Air” tour opposes “climate alarmists” and regulation trying to limit harmful emissions, including cap and trade legislation backed by Obama. “Families in South Bend were happy to bring their children out to see the seventy-foot tall hot air balloon emblazoned with the message ‘Cap and Trade Means: Higher Taxes. Lost Jobs. Less Freedom.’” [8]

Between the petition drive and the tea parties, it seems they are a group to watch, and may become home to a reliable right-wing voting base while being utterly silent on the “family” issues energizing conservative churchgoers. That certainly seems to be the goal given all the people in the field. They can give organization to the exurban and suburban base of the Right—the more privatized areas of the country, where you socialize in private clubs or churches, support school vouchers, drive in your own cars, and ignore the home foreclosures that give lie to an easy belief in personal responsibility and individual freedom that undergird your identity in the marketplace.

But if the tea parties are earthy, deriding Obama’s policies as “white slavery,” for instance, the group’s official leadership still seems to lack the right-wing populist touch in formulating their rhetoric. While they glibly target union taskmasters and greedy government bureaucrats, so far their official materials ignore other familiar scapegoats that could give their politics more zing – like undocumented immigrants, certainly a popular foil for those with economic grievance. The 1300 immigrant-related bills submitted by local and state legislators last year testify to that.

In the 1950s, William F. Buckley, Jr., tried to groom the language of the Old Right, removing ugly anti-Semitism and name calling while retaining its glorification of a free market and anti-democratic sentiments. It seems outlandish that Americans for Prosperity and the rest of today’s Right will be able to groom their vision of a nation that derides the idea of climate change, keeps the free market a humming (though the notion is rank mythology), and dissolves the separation of church and state so your favorite religious group could discriminate in the delivery of government services. But the EFCA struggle shows we should not underestimate the enduring conservative combination of front groups generating lies for the media and corporate lobbyists. Let us hope their old magic does not keep unions weak when we need them most. Indeed, the battle is nothing less than a test of democracy.

Summer 2009
Vol. 24, No. 2 :

End Notes

  1. “Annapolis Tea Party: U.S. Government Creating Crisis ‘100 Times As Grim As 9/11” Legum’s New Line, April 15, 2009.
  2. Jordan Green, “Labor and business battle for soul of Southern Democrats,” Facing South, Institute for Southern Studies, April 30, 2009.
  3. Only 12.4 percent of U.S. workers were unionized in 2008 but that is a slight increase from the year before, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The Youngstown Election Report: Notes on Unions and White Working-Class Voters,” Working Class Perspectives, Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University, November 17, 2008.
  4. American Rights at Work’s wonderful investigation of the front groups can be found here.
  5. Friends of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
  6. Kimberly Hefling and Sam Hananel, “Specter raises hopes for deal on major labor bill,” Associated Press, May 14, 2009.
  7. The Institute for Southern Studies has stayed on top of this group’s operations in the south. Sue Sturgis, “Investigation: The oil money behind the anti-stimulus fight,” Facing South, Institute for Southern Studies, February 16, 2009.


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