What’s in a name

So what’s in a name? Well, when it comes to lobbying groups in Washington, a name can tell you a lot, actually. Sometimes more than a lobbying group would like.

Some names are straightforward and informative, of course. Most people can figure out that the American Federation of Labor, where I work, represents workers. And few would be surprised to discover that the National Association of
Manufacturers speaks for manufacturing firms.

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Then there are the lobbying groups whose name suggests the exact opposite of what they really stand for. That should tell you a lot, right there. It tells you that the people behind these groups are less than proud of what they represent.

Take the United Seniors Association, for example. Here is a group funded by drug companies that promotes the interests of drug companies, even when their interests clash with those of seniors. Apparently the “Put Drug Companies First
Coalition” didn’t poll well.

So what should we make of a group that calls itself the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace? That sounds like something I might be in favor of. Are these people really trying to give workers more say in the workplace? Heck, that’s what unions do.

Actually, that is most definitely NOT what the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace tries to accomplish. Just look at who its members are. The coalition is made up of groups such as the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), whose biggest member is the notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart; the Associated Builders and Contractors, an association of anti-union contractors; the National Association of Manufacturers; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

These groups do have a track record on issues that involve giving workers more say in the workplace. Not surprisingly, they’re not for that.

In fact, the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace was formed to defeat legislation that would make it less of an ordeal for workers to form unions and bargain with management for better wages and working conditions.

You’d think that an anti-union business coalition would be laughed out of the room for trying to pretend that its multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign against labor law reform was motivated by a concern for workplace democracy.
But for some reason, inside the Beltway this absurd notion has yet to draw so much as a snicker from the media and political establishment.

There is a real and pressing threat to democracy in the workplace, and it is the impunity with which management routinely fires, discriminates against and harasses workers when they try to form unions. The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace is not trying to solve that problem. In fact, it pretends that the problem doesn’t exist. Instead, it wants to kill the only real solution to the problem that’s on the table.

The solution it wants to kill is the Employee Free Choice Act, which it claims would eliminate secret-ballot elections. But the Employee Free Choice Act doesn’t even touch the statutory provision that allows workers to request a government-supervised secret-ballot election. It simply doesn’t.

Under current law, there are two ways for workers to form unions. Most workers today do not form unions through government-supervised secret-ballot elections. Today most workers who form unions do so when a majority sign “authorization cards” — forms that authorize the union to bargain with management on their behalf. Once a majority of the workers sign cards, management can recognize the union, but it does not have to.

The Employee Free Choice Act would change the law to let workers form a union when a majority authorizes the union to bargain on their behalf, regardless of whether management agrees to recognize their union. After all, why should management get to dictate how workers decide whether to bargain with management?

The reason workers might prefer this method of forming a union — why, in fact, they already do prefer this method — is that it’s less likely to trigger an anti-union campaign by management, in which workers are routinely fired, discriminated against, and harassed to keep them from voting for the union. The anti-union campaign is coercion, plain and simple, but this is what the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace is fighting for.

The irony is that groups like the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace use such names because they think it makes them more convincing. On second thought, if a coalition of anti-union businesses admitted up front that they’re trying to keep employees from bargaining for higher wages, that probably wouldn’t be too convincing, either.

Because a growing number of Americans are becoming concerned about wage stagnation and income inequality in this country, and they are coming to realize that allowing workers to bargain for wages and benefits is essential to restoring the American middle class.


Samuel is the director of legislation at the  AFL-CIO. In addition to serving as the chief lobbyist for the 13 million-member labor federation, Samuel chairs the AFL-CIO’s legislative committee, which is made up of legislative representatives from the federation’s 54 affiliated unions.

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