Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Unions should not bet on the EFCA as a sure thing


As President Obama was taking the oath of office, inside some office in some executive office building in Washington D.C., someone flipped a switch and turned on the new website for the White House. It is drastically different, as President Obama is becoming the first president to fully embrace the internet as a viable means to communicate with the public. It has all of the typical history, civics, and biographical information one has come to expect from the White House’s website. However, it also has extensive information on President Obama’s agenda for the next four years. You’ll find information on suggested changes to the FMLA and paid sick leave, proposed new laws to protect individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and his plan to stimulate the economy and create jobs.

What you will not find, though, is any mention of the Employee Free Choice Act. While it was featured prominently on Change.gov, the President’s transition website, it has been completely scrubbed from Whitehouse.gov. Perhaps this recent interview of President Obama by the Washington Post sheds some light on this curious omission:

Q: The Employee Free Choice Act - a timing question and a substance question: in terms of timing how quickly would you like to see it brought up? Would you like to see it brought up in your first year? In terms of substance, the bills that you talked about in your floor statement on the Employee Free Choice Act problems with bullying of [inaudible] people want to join unions. Is card check the only solution? Or are you open to considering other solutions that might shorten the time?

Obama: I think I think that is a fair question and a good one.

Here's my basic principal that wages and incomes have flatlined over the last decade. That part of that has to do with forces that are beyond everybody's control: globalization, technology and so forth. Part of it has to do with workers have very little leverage and that larger and larger shares of our productivity go to the top and not to the middle or the bottom. I think unions serve an important role in that. I think that the way the Bush Administration managed the Department of Labor, the NLRB, and a host of other aspects of labor management relations put the thumb too heavily against unions. I want to lift that thumb. There are going to be steps that we can take other than the Employee Free Choice Act that will make a difference there.

I think the basic principal of making it easier and fairer for workers who want to join a union, join a union is important. And the basic outline of the Employee Fair Choice are ones that I agree with. But I will certainly listen to all parties involved including from labor and the business community which I know considers this to be the devil incarnate. I will listen to parties involved and see if there are ways that we can bring those parties together and restore some balance.

You know, now if the business community's argument against the Employee Free Choice Act is simply that it will make it easier for people to join unions and we think that is damaging to the economy then they probably won't get too far with me. If their arguments are we think there are more elegant ways of doing this or here are some modifications or tweaks to the general concept that we would like to see. Then I think that's a conversation that not only myself but folks in labor would be willing to have. But, so that's the general approach that I am interested in taking. But in terms of time table, if we are losing half a million jobs a month then there are no jobs to unionize. So my focus first is on those key economic priority items that I just mentioned.

To read the tea leaves, no one should think that President Obama has softened his position on the EFCA as a matter of policy. He was an early supporter of it as a Senator, and it is fair to conclude that the ascension to the Presidency has not altered his ideology. However, he is a shrewd politician, and he must know: 1) that given the current state of the economy the timing is not right for the EFCA, and 2) the EFCA in its current form is too divisive to ever come out of Congress. In other words, the EFCA is off the table for now, but once the economic ship has been righted, look for this administration to push for a compromised, less controversial, Employee Free Choice Act.

[Hat tip: Connecticut Employment Law Blog and Workplace Prof Blog]

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