Specter In Pittsburgh: Punishment and Reward at AFL-CIO Convention

“More than ever before, we need to be a labor movement that stands by our friends, punishes its enemies, and criticizes those who, well, can’t seem to decide which side they’re on.”

                                                                     –Rich Trumka, in the Washington Post Sept. 7, 2009


(PITTSBURGH, SEPT. 15) When the history of the bi-partisan undermining of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is finally written, Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter will be assigned a pivotal role.


Back in March, when he was still in the GOP, Specter announced that he was no longer going to be the much-prized 60th vote for “cloture” on EFCA. That’s the procedure Senate Democrats will have to employ sometime later this year to overcome a Republican filibuster, and make what retiring AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was still predicting last Sunday would be “the greatest advances in labor law reform in 7020years.”


In 2007, Specter supported bringing EFCA to the floor for a Senate vote, after it was passed overwhelmingly in the House. But according to the same Senator earlier this year, “the problems of the recession” make 2009 a "particularly bad time to enact Employees Free Choice.”


In union campaigns, which have by-passed the NLRB and used “card check” instead to demonstrate majority support, Specter discovered there had been “widespread intimidation” by organizers who “visit workers’ homes with strong-arm tactics and refuse to leave until cards are signed.”


To deal with this alleged coercion, Specter recommended making it an unfair labor practice for any “union official” to visit “an employee at his/her home without prior consent for any purpose related to a representation campaign.”


While letting everyone know last March that he was no longer for cloture, Specter also positioned himself to play a key role brokering a compromise with Senate colleagues like Tom Harkin and Chuck Schumer, who might “choose to move on and amend the NLRA” in ways more acceptable to Arlen.   


With a workers rights’ record like this, Specter would appear to be an ideal candidate for the kind of labor “punishment” that might send a message to the rest of his wavering breed — particularly since he faces a Democratic primary challenge next year by a pro-EFCA 20 congressman.


In several recent interviews, new AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka indicated that he favored making politicians more accountable–“so they don’t listen to the moneyman and continue to erode away or negotiate away” key labor goals, a trend most evident now in "healthcare reform."


Nevertheless, here we are on day three of the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh, listening to Rich Trumka warmly welcome none other than Arlen Specter. From Trumka, we learn that his friend Arlen has been a rare “pro-labor Republican” for years. From the wrinkled, frail-looking 79-year old Specter, we get a quick recitation of his past responsiveness to top union officials when job safety and health enforcement, or some other federal program to benefit workers, was under siege by anti-union Republicans put in the White House with Spector’s help (i.e. two Bushes and a Reagan).


Today, the senator said, he favored a “robust public option" in healthcare, sanctions on imported Chinese tires, and emission standards that wouldn’t jeopardize jobs in coal mining, steel making, or other manufacturing.


On “employees’ choice,” Specter reassured his labor audience that his latest position—spelled out in little detail—met the three standards set forth by Trumka, in a Sept. 5 New York Times article headlined “Union Head Would Back Bill Without Card Check.” (That was a reference to Sweeney’s own Labor Day weekend expression of willingness to accept a fast election campaign instead of card check"– after two years worth of grassroots mobilization focusing on the latter.


As described by Specter, Trunka’s three minimum requirements for “labor law reform” now include “prompt certification," “tough penalties," and “binding arbitration” of first contracts. According to Specter, a half dozen Senators, plus himself, Harkin, and Schumer, are working on a new version of EFCA that will “be totally satisfactory to labor.”


Specter both referenced —and was aided in his performance— by a local headline today announcing an impending Right-to-Work Committee “ad blitz” directed at him and the now abandoned “card check” method he criticized, much like the RTWC, back in March.  A full-page ad in yesterday’s Post-Gazette, run by the business-backed “Coalition for a Democratic Workplace,” still urged Specter to “oppose any versions of the job-killing” EFCA that would “shift power from workers to union bosses” or give “government-appointed bureaucrats more control in setting wages.”


These costly exertions by the anti-EFCA lobby reflect quite a different stance than elements of corporate America have taken vis-à-vis health care reform. In that ongoing debate, labor defenders and facilitators of compromise (like SEIU leader Dennis Rivera) can at least point, as President Obama does, to what they consider to be positive movement on the part of some management players. When the subject is labor law reform —either as originally conceived or sans card check— the labor concessions made so far, brokered by the likes of Specter, have yet to be matched by anyone speaking for the employer side. (In collective bargaining, this "union caucus" phenomena is known as "bargaining with yourself.")


In the meantime, President Obama, who also addressed labor delegates today, is flying off to Philadelphia with his arm around Specter. They’ll be there together tonight at a big Specter re-election fundraiser, where Obama will be offering the same kind of reward for Specter’s party-switch that the AFL-CIO is prepared to give as well, in the hopes of getting EFCA-Lite in return.

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