Workforce.com

As Elections Near, Unions Look To Sway Senate Races

April 25, 2008
With the election of the next U.S. president and key Senate seats drawing closer, a number of unions are coming together to lay the groundwork for their agenda.

Late last month, the Communication Workers of America, the United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers announced an alliance “to help elect candidates who support working families and to advocate on public policy issues,” according to a statement.

Topping the alliance’s priority list is making sure the Employee Free Choice Act passes. The act, which failed to gain approval last year, would allow a union to form if a majority of workers signed cards authorizing a bargaining unit, thus making it easier for unions to organize. Under current law, a company can insist on a secret-ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.

“We want to make sure that this legislation becomes veto-proof,” says Marco Trbovich, a spokesman for the alliance.

The Employee Free Choice Act is crucial for the labor movement as it struggles with a declining membership. Manufacturing-based unions in particular are suffering from dwindling numbers. At the end of 2007, the UAW had 500,000 members, down from 1.5 million at its peak in 1979.

Although union membership is down, the labor movement still has a lot of political clout on Capitol Hill, experts say.

“Unions have gotten weaker, but that weakness is not reflected in the political arena,” says Joshua Freeman, a professor of labor history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. “They are very effective in mobilizing their members and families. It’s now fairly common to have one out of four votes in an election coming from a union household.”

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hil¬lary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have said that if they win the election, they will sign the Employee Free Choice Act into law.

That means the union also is focusing on making sure there are enough supporters voted into the Senate this fall to push the bill through Congress to the president’s desk for approval, says Chuck Ro¬cha, national political director of the United Steel¬workers.

The new alliance is going to focus on rallying its members and families to support candidates for the Senate, particularly in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, Rocha says. There are 33 seats in the Senate up for election this fall.

“We are looking at states where we can change or affect a vote because of an open seat or a retirement or at least cast a friendly EFCA vote against a hostile one,” he says. The UAW, CWA and Steelworkers alone have 320,000 members in Ohio, 240,000 in Pennsylvania and 460,000 in Michigan, Rocha says. “You can assume that it’s at least double that with their families,” he says.

The alliance also will continue to pressure the Democratic presidential nominee—should the Democrats win the White House—to follow through on the promise to enact the Employee Free Choice Act, Rocha says. The alliance hasn’t decided whether it is going to publicly endorse one of the Democratic candidates.

It’s wise for the unions not to assume the Employee Free Choice Act will become law if a Democrat wins the election, observers say.

“The rhetoric on the campaign trail isn’t the same as it is after the candidate is in office,” says Arthur Wheaton, education specialist at the School of Industrial Labor Relations at Cornell University. “And this bill is essential for the labor movement.”

Jessica Marquez