By Marie Cocco
No cable television rants. No congressional hearing staged to publicly whip those responsible for so transparent a betrayal. Not a pitchfork in sight.
You would be hard-pressed to know that American workers suffered a cruel defeat last week when Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter—the lone Republican to have once supported a measure that would make it easier for workers to form unions and more likely that employers would negotiate in good faith—effectively killed the effort for this year.
A Specter vote for the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, organized labor’s top legislative goal, was needed to break the expected filibuster by his fellow Republicans.
The immediate cause of his flip-flop was a primary challenge that Specter is expected to face from former Rep. Pat Toomey, a card-carrying member of the vast right-wing conglomerate. Toomey, who came within a breath of toppling Specter in the 2004 primary, is president of the Club for Growth, an organization of conservatives that has as its guiding principle a fealty to pretty much every economic precept that has gotten us where we are today.
The club’s view of sound economics is to make permanent the Bush tax cuts, which drain $2.2 trillion from the treasury over a decade and which, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, bestow the largest benefits on the top one-tenth of 1 percent of households—those with incomes of $3 million or more. The club also wants to permanently repeal the estate tax. This year, the Tax Policy Center found, about two-thirds of this tax will be paid by about 700 estates. The inheritors of these estates represent 0.03 percent of all anticipated heirs in 2009.
Indirectly but indisputably, Toomey and the ideological brain trust that has given us such skewed policies have also managed to kill the most significant chance American workers had to push back against decades of job losses, benefit cuts and stagnant wages.
But neither Toomey nor Specter did this alone. Business made defeat of the pro-union measure its top priority. It argued, deceptively, that it was ardently in favor of workers maintaining the right to vote for or against unions in secret-ballot elections when, in truth, such elections under current law are called not by workers but by employers who refuse to accept initial results of card check-offs that favor unionization.
Nonetheless, the economic downturn swiftly shredded the cloak of rhetoric about democracy. Business reverted to arguing that allowing workers to bargain for decent wages and benefits is a cost they should not bear. Even Specter took up this cant, arguing against “adding a burden” to business at the wrong time.
So here is the essence of it: Largely unencumbered by unions, which now represent only about 7 percent of private-sector workers, American businesses have shipped jobs overseas, unilaterally cut benefits, kept wages stagnant or falling for most of the decade and laid off millions. The doctrine of nonintervention in the marketplace that is now the central argument against the proposed Employee Free Choice Act is the very same dogma that led us into the current financial crisis and the worst recession in at least three decades.
Workers who did nothing to create the current economic crisis must now be kept powerless lest they create some future economic crisis we cannot yet imagine.
The public—Pennsylvanians among them—voted against this sort of illogic just four short months ago. The AFL-CIO spent $250 million in last year’s elections on behalf of Barack Obama and many other Democrats it believed would be sympathetic to labor. But Obama, who endorsed the free choice act as a candidate, began obscuring his position almost as soon as he took office. And though Specter’s about-face is the most visible backstabbing, a handful of Senate Democrats worried about their own re-elections also were uncertain in their support and almost hostile in their public statements. It is unclear whether the measure would have passed the Senate even if Specter had voted to break his party’s filibuster and allowed a vote.
American workers do not need friends whose subservience to the politics of self-preservation makes them indistinguishable from enemies. Remember this the next time these same so-called leaders join the frenzy over an irresponsibly greedy corporate culture—and then act decisively to keep it in place.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group