The defection of a Republican Pennsylvania senator to the Democratic Party could have profound implications for the labor movement in the U.S. Or not.
U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, 79, announced April 28 that he would run next year as a Democrat. He acknowledged that his own polling indicated that he could not win his Pennsylvania primary against the leading Republican challenger.
“As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself to be more and more at odds with the Republican Party and more in tune with the Democratic Party,” Specter said.
In March, Specter announced that he would not support the Employee Free Choice Act, which is probably the most important labor legislation in the last 50 years. The EFCA is expected to make it much more easier for unions to organize. But on the same day he defected, Specter said he would not change his position against the EFCA.
Nevertheless, his party switch elated AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel, who held out hope Specter would change his mind on that issue, too, and provide the needed 60th vote to halt the planned Republican filibuster against labor’s top legislative priority.
“This is a new day for the Employee Free Choice Act and labor law reform. Specter has said all along he recognizes the need to reform our broken labor law system and we will continue to work with Congress to give workers back the freedom to form and join unions and pass legislation that stays true to the principles of the Employee Free Choice Act,” said Samuel.
Specter’s switch, combined with an eventual victory by Democrat Al Franken to gain Minnesota’s open Senate seat – a race now tied up in court – would give Democrats and other labor allies the ability to stop filibusters on a wide range of pro-worker laws, including the EFCA. A moderate Republican who had been a Democrat decades ago, Specter said his votes as a Democrat would not always follow party lines.
Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research told Politico, “this could breath new life into the Employee Free Choice Act. Specter may still opt to vote against the bill itself, but as a Democrat he can at least vote against a filibuster, allowing a vote to take place.”
If you could know a piece of legislation by its enemies, the Employee Free Choice Act has many in the Big Business community. Wal Mart hates it, as does the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. As we’ve reported, Home Depot CEO Bernie Marcus famously said passage of the bill would be the “demise of civilization.” The business community spent $70 million last year in television ads opposing the EFCA.
Beyond Specter, unions have to keep wavering Democratic lawmakers in line from all that political pressure – especially those who hail from conservative states.
Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is expected to make it easier for unions to organize. The act would allow workers to choose a secret ballot or majority sign-up when deciding whether to join a union. Under majority sign-up, workers could join a union if most of them sign cards saying that they want to join a union.
But the current system allows employers, not workers, to choose whether secret ballots or majority card sign-up is used. Employers usually choose the more formal secret ballot system, and are able to delay the ballots for months or years, while taking the time to coerce workers not to choose union representation.
“Workers who support unions are threatened, intimidated, and fired,” said Teamsters President James Hoffa.
(PAI contributed to this report).