With Senate control in play, labor unions look past card-check bill

Labor unions are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Democratic Senate candidates Michael Bennet and Joe Manchin — even though they have distanced themselves from high-priority labor legislation. 

The move shows unions, which had long warned they wouldn’t help Democrats who did not support favored bills such as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), are putting ideology aside to keep more Republicans from being elected to the Senate. It also reflects widespread recognition that the next Congress will not be as hospitable to labor’s agenda. 

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Several labor officials said EFCA will have to be changed for the next session if it is to become law. In turn, they are looking to help elect Democrats who are at least open to compromise on the legislation.

“It is realpolitik. We are down to the last week of the election and we are in a position that Democrats are struggling to hold on to their majorities,” said Larry Scanlon, political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). 

AFSCME has spent more than $1.2 million so far on media buys attacking Bennet’s Republican opponent, Ken Buck, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records. 

“We look at if it is better to have a Bennet there, someone who we can work with and talk to. … We have that opportunity with Bennet. We certainly don’t have that with Buck,” Scanlon said. “We go through that calculus when we make our decisions on where to invest our money.”

Aruna Jain, a spokeswoman for Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate group, said Buck has expressed “extreme anti-working family sentiments,” such as raising the retirement age and privatizing Social Security. Consequently, Working America has spent almost $70,000 on paid organizers to drum up support for Bennet across Colorado, according to FEC records.

Despite labor support this election year, Bennet has never co-sponsored EFCA, which was considered unions’ top priority at the start of this Congress. During a debate this month with Buck, Bennet said he “would not support the language in that bill,” according to The Denver Post.

“Michael believes we need to protect the right of workers to organize free from intimidation and that we can do it in a way that strengthens Colorado’s economy,” said Trevor Kincaid, a Bennet spokesman. “The most recent proposal didn’t do the trick, and Michael would have voted against it. If a new bill is drafted, Michael will make a judgment based on what is best for Colorado.”

Union officials emphasized that Bennet supported many of labor’s other legislative priorities. The senator voted for the financial-services reform bill, extended unemployment benefits and pushed to include a government-run health insurance option in the healthcare bill. 

EFCA is designed to help ease union organizing. The bill includes a provision, often called “card-check,” that would allow workers to form a union by bypassing a secret-ballot election and instead sign cards stating their intent to organize. 

Candice Johnson, communications director for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), said that version of the bill would not pass “with the current Senate we have, and not with the likely Senate we are going to have.”

The bill has not been voted on this Congress after failing to get enough supporters to beat back an expected Republican-led filibuster in the Senate. Labor leaders have hinted that the bill could come up during the lame-duck session, but that seems unlikely. 

CWA has spent $50,000 on television ads attacking John Raese, the GOP opponent of another Democrat who has distanced himself from EFCA, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. 

Johnson said her union believes it can work with Manchin on the organizing issue.

“We are going to keep working to make sure you get something done,” Johnson said. “He already has a good working relationship with workers in West Virginia. We think there is something there.”

In an interview with the Wheeling News-Register earlier this month, the West Virginia governor said he had problems with the card-check provision as well as another measure in the bill that would have the government appoint an independent arbitrator to settle union contract disputes.

Lara Ramsburg, a spokeswoman for Manchin, said the governor “will review each piece of proposed legislation carefully when he arrives in the Senate and make his decisions accordingly.” 

“He has always believed in the privacy of a vote and in the secret ballot, but he also believes that companies should operate in good faith and when there are successful labor drives, they should be ratified as soon as possible,” Ramsburg said. 

Like CWA, other unions have gotten behind Manchin with outside campaign spending. The United Mine Workers spent $50,000 on television ads attacking Raese, while the International Association of Fire Fighters spent more than $48,000 on ads in support of Manchin, according to FEC records. 

Labor’s decision to support Democrats not on board with EFCA could hurt the bill’s chances in the next Congress, according to one opponent of the legislation. 

“What you are seeing is the unions going for incumbent protection instead of sticking to their core issues. That is probably going to come back and haunt them in the future,” said Glenn Spencer, executive director of the Workforce Freedom Initiative at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “When they head up to the Hill to negotiate these issues, it’s been demonstrated that you can buck the unions and still get their financial support.”