Priority #1 for Working America -- Make It Easier to Unionize
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After making millions of phone calls and knocking on millions of doors to elect Barack Obama, the nation's labor unions have begun a new campaign: to get the new president and Congress to pass legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize.
Unions, delighted that they will have a friend in the White House after eight years of fighting President Bush, also plan to push for universal health coverage and a huge stimulus program to create jobs and counter the downturn.
"Our major priority in the short and long term," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, "is to get the economy working for Americans who work."
But corporate America has already declared war on labor's push for new legislation that would help unions organize.
"This will be Armageddon," said Randel Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the United States Chamber of Commerce.
Labor's No. 1 priority is a piece of legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as the card-check bill. The bill would give workers the right to join a union as soon as a majority of employees at a workplace signed cards saying they wanted one. Business groups have attacked the legislation because it would take away employers' right to insist on holding a secret-ballot election to determine whether workers favored unionization.
With union membership sliding to 7.5 percent of the private-sector work force, one-third the rate in 1983, unions see enactment of the bill as the single most important step toward reversing their loss of membership and power. Some labor leaders predict that if the bill is passed, unions, which have 16 million members nationwide, would add at least five million workers to their rolls over the next few years.
"We really need fundamental change to counterbalance corporate power and reverse the decline of the middle class," said John J. Sweeney, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s president, "and that's why we support the Employee Free Choice Act."
Mr. Sweeney said labor unions were eager for a stimulus program to jump-start the economy and to help those hurt by the downturn. He called for extending unemployment benefits, increasing financing for food stamps, approving a rescue plan for Detroit's automakers and immediately spending more on rebuilding roads, bridges and schools.
Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber's president, criticized the card-check bill as "payback" that labor unions were expecting in return for their campaign efforts.
Bill Samuel, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s director of government affairs, disagreed, noting that President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. had co-sponsored the act as senators.
"This is not about payback," Mr. Samuel said. "We're looking to work with the new administration on a shared set of priorities that focus on lifting workers and improving the economy."
The A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Change to Win, the rival labor federation, campaigned all out for Mr. Obama, with labor leaders saying that unions and their political action committees spent nearly $450 million during the race.
Mr. Sweeney said that in the last four days of the campaign, 250,000 volunteers from A.F.L.-C.I.O. unions made 5.5 million phone calls and visited 3.9 million union households. All told, he said, unions reached out to more than 13 million voters in 24 states, with some undecided union members being contacted more than 30 times through phone calls, household visits and workplace conversations.
Union leaders say they were pivotal in helping Mr. Obama win several battleground states, including Florida, Indiana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. According to a voter poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 67 percent of members of A.F.L.-C.I.O. unions voted for Mr. Obama, a Democrat, and 30 percent for his Republican rival, Senator John McCain.