I’ve been in communication with the Obama transition team since last week, unsuccessfully seeking an answer to the question, "Will an Obama administration make passage of the Employee Free Choice Act a top priority, and will it use all resources at its disposal to persuade lawmakers to pass it?" Representatives of the Obama transition team have so far declined to clarify or affirm the incoming administration’s commitment to the legislation.
Questions about the new administration’s commitment to the Employee Free Choice Act arose after Rahm Emanuel, who has been selected to become Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, recently declined to affirm an Obama administration’s commitment to the Employee Free Choice Act when speaking to a group of prominent business leaders. Emanuel’s unwillingness to make a statement about the Employee Free Choice Act stood out because Barack Obama made strong, unequivocal statements of support for the legislation during the presidential campaign.
According to a Wall Street Journal report on November 19:
(Emanuel) was asked his views on the push by labor unions to allow workplaces to be organized with the signing of cards attesting to union support rather than a secret ballot. Mr. Emanuel declined to say whether the White House would support the legislation, but he said the unions are addressing the concerns of a middle class that has seen U.S. median income slide over the past eight years, while health care, energy and education costs have soared.
The Employee Free Choice Act would make it possible for a majority of workers in an organization to certify a union through a process uncontrolled and uninfluenced by agents of management. Accordingly, the bill has become a major point of anticipated controversy during the new administration, where it would be subject to vehement opposition by big business groups like the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, and likely subject to a Republican led filibuster in the U. S. Senate. The U. S. Chamber has pledged to spend ten million dollars to fight against the bill’s ultimate passage.
Business groups claim it would eliminate a secret ballot to certify a union, though the Act does not prevent unions from becoming certified through traditional ballot processes controlled by management. It is already legal for unions to be certified by one of two processes: a management controlled election or by majority sign up.
However, current law allows employers to exercise sole discretion over which method will be recognized. The Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers to choose which already legal method to employ. Advocates for labor say that companies routinely prefer the ballot process because management can manipulate it to intimidate and punish pro-union employees, thereby preventing unions from forming.
The bill faces stiff odds in the U. S. Senate, given the likelihood of a Republican led filibuster, and almost no chance if the Obama administration does not make passage of the Act one of its top level priorities. Already, Arlen Specter (R-PA) is signaling he may not vote favorably on the measure as he once did when it had no chance of becoming law under a Republican administration.
During his appearance before the Wall Street Journal’s CEO group, Emanuel reportedly described the Obama administration’s priorities as:
(Emanuel) presented the five main priority areas for change in an Obama administration: health-care cost control and expansion of coverage; energy independence and alternative energy; improving tax fairness and simplicity; education reforms; and regulatory overhaul that boosts transparency accountability.
Emanuel’s refusal to express the incoming administration’s commitment to the Employee Free Choice Act has generated quiet concern among advocates for labor who see the legislation as critical to any sustainable economic recovery for the middle class. However, my requests to the Obama transition team for a clarification of the incoming administration’s level of commitment to the Employee Free Choice Act have so far failed.