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Obama is Cutting Sen. Specter Too Much Slack
By Dave Lindorff
President Barack Obama was so obviously pleased to have five-term Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announce that he was switching party affiliation and joining the Democratic Party that the president missed an opportunity to make sure that his new BFF in the Senate was also a backer of the issues that Obama ran on in the presidential campaign.
Indeed, while President Obama was quick to offer Sen. Specter his backing and even to offer to help him with fund-raising in his quest for re-election in 2010, he said nothing at all about any quid-pro-quo.
This is not only unfortunate. It is irresponsible.
Sen. Specter, for all his claims to be an independent thinker, has over the years voted at lease 65% of the time with his Republican colleagues in the Senate—a support level for Republican positions that exceeds that of two of his Republican colleagues from Maine, Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins.
Sen. Specter, notably, had actually reversed himself in recent months, on the issue of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill, which would make it easier for workers to establish labor unions in their workplaces, and to win a first contract with management. At one time, Sen. Specter had voted in favor of letting such a bill go to a vote in the Senate, but lately, as he was contemplating a tough primary battle against a conservative challenger, he had changed his tune, saying that he would not vote to block a planned Republican filibuster of this legislation.
The EFCA is a key legislative goal of the US labor movement, which has seen its ranks dwindle over 50 years of successful corporate lobbying efforts to whittle away labor law protections for the right to organize. Where once nearly a third of all workers were in labor unions back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, today, fewer than 9 percent of workers in the private sector belong to unions, a figure that only rises to about 12.5 percent when public employees are added in. This despite the fact that 58 percent of Americans say that they would like to have a union if they could get one.
Today, labor laws are violated with impunity to the point that one lawyer from a prominent labor-busting law firm, faced with a unfair labor practices filing and hearing by a union currently in its 10th month of trying to negotiate a new contract with management, said to union leaders, “Why are you bothering to file a ULP? You know there are no real penalties for violating labor laws.”
The problem is that the National Labor Relations Act is so weak, with no real penalties for management violations, and the Labor Relations Boards that hear and rule on labor law violations are so infested with pro-management members, that it is nearly impossible to unionize new workplaces today. Corporate managements know that they can fire union organizers at will with little consequence, that they can stall off union elections for years and use the intervening time to intimidate or replace pro-union employees, and that even if workers ultimately get to hold a union election and do vote in favor of unionization, they can safely stonewall negotiations for a first contract.
The EFCA would address this problem in two ways. Firstly, it would eliminate the cumbersome and easily delayed requirement for a secret ballot election to establish a union. All union organizers would have to do would be to collect cards of support for a union from a majority of the workers at a workplace, and once those signatures were verified, the company would have to recognize the union. Then the union and management would get 90 days to negotiate an initial contract. If they failed to reach an agreement, an initial contract would be established through arbitration.
The House last year, under Democratic control, passed the EFCA, only to have the bill die in the Senate, where Democrats held only a one-vote edge. Republicans managed to prevent the measure from even coming to a vote.
Last fall, the vast majority of Democrats running for reelection said they backed EFCA, as did Barack Obama on the campaign trail. But now that the new Congress is in session, support for the measure is softening, under the pressure of a massive multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign by such organizations as the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. A key player in the campaign against EFCA has been Wal-Mart.
Sen. Specter, as a Republican facing a conservative challenger, clearly felt he needed to oppose EFCA. But now Specter is claiming to be a Democrat, in a state with significant union representation. Even so, union activists report that when they went to his main office in Pennsylvania to deliver tens of thousands of petitions calling on him to support the reform measure, they were told by a staffer that their hard work would just “go in the trash” when they left the office.
Specter’s continued opposition to EFCA stands as an insult and an affront to all the workers in his home state, and the local labor movement should withhold any support from him until he comes out strongly and unambiguously for passage of EFCA.
President Obama too should be demanding that Specter promise to support EFCA passage before he commits himself to backing the senator’s re-election bid.
The same should be said for health reform. It’s not clear at this point whether Specter even backs Obama’s health reform plan. In truth though, particularly given the number of uninsured people living in Pennsylvania, Specter should be pressed to back the single-payer bill being put forward in the Senate by his colleague Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Specter, after all, just went through a tough battle with cancer, which he seems to have beaten thanks to his extraordinarily generous Congressionally offered and taxpayer funded health insurance plan, and his access to the finest doctors and hospitals the country has to offer. He is not in any position, ethically, at this point to oppose making healthcare available to and affordable for every resident of his state.
Right now, Specter is at his most vulnerable. Many of his long-time Republican and independent backers are angry at him for quitting the party, and at the same time, many Democrats, who have voted against him for years as a Republican, are skeptical about his sudden change of party registration.
Now is the time that President Obama should be demanding that Specter back the key elements of his program. Now is also the time that progressives and labor activists in Pennsylvania should be letting Sen. Specter know that if he wants their support in 2010, he will have to support our issues. That means full-throated backing for EFCA, and for a single-payer health plan for America.
If Specter weasels on these key issues, progressives and labor should withhold their backing and throw themselves behind a more progressive candidate, should one choose to run against him for the Democratic nomination next spring.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net