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Paul Nitze: Guest Opinion

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Crisis begets opportunity in politics. The president’s chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, knows this, which is why he told reporters that we need to make the most of the current economic crisis. Meanwhile, hard times can also bring out the worst political instincts.

Cases in point are growing calls for protectionist legislation from Congress. Back in the 1990s, President Clinton was able to hold the line on protectionists in his own party and change the Democrats’ image on free trade. That, among other forms of “triangulation,” as it was known then, helped keep Dems in power. Nowadays, keeping a lid on protectionism is a lot harder.

In their efforts to hit the magic 60-vote threshold in the Senate, the Democratic leadership has had to put up candidates in various states who have deep protectionist instincts. I’m talking about senators like Sherrod Brown, a freshman senator from Ohio, who has voted no on every significant trade agreement to come through the Senate; and Amy Klobuchar, the freshman senator from Minnesota, who took an anti-trade stance in her campaign, but has since moderated a bit.

Democrats aren’t in this alone though ” a new breed of protectionist Republican candidate has emerged in recent years at the same time as Republicans have grown more isolationist on foreign policy. Mike Huckabee was the torchbearer for this platform during his aborted presidential run last year.

The net result of this trend has been significant victories for labor unions committed to squashing free trade agreements and imposing barriers to trade with our existing partners. Just recently, protectionists attached a provision to the omnibus spending bill that killed a Department of Transportation pilot program allowing some Mexican trucks to haul freight on U.S. roads. In retaliation, Mexico has said it will impose new tariffs on $2.4 billion in American goods.

So the president, whose stance on free trade has been refreshingly moderate since his election, is going to have his hands full maintaining the status quo, never mind getting new trade agreements through Congress. If he is to have success in that area, he’s got to help labor out in other ways. How can he possibly go to the AFL-CIO or the Teamsters with a plea to pass CAFTA, a free trade agreement with Columbia, if he can’t say, “Look how I helped you on X, Y, and Z”?

Which is where the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and our newly minted senator, Michael Bennet, come into the picture. EFCA sits at the top of the labor agenda for this Congressional term, and Bennet’s vote is needed to get to 60. Given the ongoing electoral twilight zone that is the Minnesota senate race, Bennet’s vote may not be enough, but EFCA is unlikely to pass without his support.

Colorado business groups are aware of this, and have told Bennet that he won’t raise even half of the $13 million he needs to keep his seat if he supports EFCA, also known as the “card check” bill. I can’t estimate how much of a fundraising hit Bennet will take, but I’d ask him to bite the bullet, stare down the Chamber of Commerce, and vote “yes” (Mark Udall has already come out in favor).

I’ve got too little space to lay out all the pros and cons of card check, but here’s what you need to know in a nutshell: It’s a flawed but necessary effort to right the balance of power in union elections. Flawed because union elections these days are like a prizefight between two aging boxers ” ugly, long, and no fun at all to watch. Contested elections inevitably involve intimidation from both union organizers and company management.

Necessary because for many years the balance of power has tilted too far toward managers who will do whatever it takes to block union recognition. They must be playing broom hockey in the hallways of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) these days, because the NLRB has been woefully bad at playing its designated role of overseer and mediator when elections turn ugly.

Under current law, once a majority of employees sign a card asking for union representation, the NLRB gives employers the choice of either submitting to a secret ballot election or accepting union certification and allowing employees’ union of choice to engage in collective bargaining. Hence the efforts of card check opponents to brand EFCA an “anti-democratic” bill. Hogwash, I say. At most companies, secret ballots are about as free and fair as the recent election in Zimbabwe.

Companies routinely use threats and intimidation to flush out employee intentions leading up to the vote and to harass and often fire union sympathizers before the election. If that’s not good enough, management can use endless legal tactics to delay the vote until they can “convince” enough employees to oppose the union. Union hands aren’t clean either, of course ” organizers often deploy a variety of pressure tactics to win secret ballots. But under current law they’re fighting with a hand tied behind their back.

EFCA tips the balance the other way, by forcing companies into mediation instead of allowing them to drag the process out forever, by getting rid of the secret ballot, and by putting the emphasis on the card check process. It also allows for employees to seek triple damages if an employer fires them for seeking representation.

I’m not in love with EFCA. Far from it. But on balance it provides new life to a labor movement that has been ravaged by Bush administration policies. I’m more worried about other legislation that could be much more damaging to our economic interests. If we’re to have any hope of getting labor to cease and desist from those bills, we need to get EFCA passed. And we need Sen. Bennet to help put it over the top.


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