Monday, Jan. 19, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Unions, so integral to the Democratic victory in November, are staying in high-energy campaign mode, hoping to ride the momentum of their election efforts to win support for what they’ve identified as working-family priorities, such as changes in labor law and health care.
The Service Employees International Union, for example, is dedicating thousands of staff and 30 percent of its budget to the effort. Locals in 35 states, including Nevada, are being asked to match the commitment.
The SEIU campaign, “Change That Works,” calls on the power of its membership to hold the officials it helped elect accountable.
The question is: Can unions effectively harness their influence beyond the ballot box?
Eve Weinbaum, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the answer will come down to how well unions are able to mobilize their members behind a policy agenda — something that is much more abstract than electing or defeating a candidate.
Although there are no longer the tangible, immediate tasks, such as registering voters, the tactics unions employed in turning people out for campaigns will be instructive in keeping the pressure on officials, she said.
Unions are newly committed to keeping up campaign-level efforts beyond November and to show that “just because our guy is in, we’re not going away,” Weinbaum said. “The message is that if the agenda we agreed to isn’t carried out, we’re paying attention and there will be repercussions.”
It’s a broader ambition than previous legislative efforts that focused on a specific issue, such as the free trade agreement of the 1990s and privatization of Social Security during President George W. Bush’s second term.
Eddie Burke, executive director SEIU’s local chapter, said it will hire a campaign director by the end of the month to organize the effort in Nevada. The director will have a staff of at least six.
“The plan has a national mission, but it drops right into Carson City, too,” Burke said. “That’s the exciting part from my vantage point.”
SEIU’s immediate focus is the stimulus package and how that money is used in the state. The union is paying particular attention to Medicaid dollars.
Another priority for SEIU locally is protecting public employees and services, Burke said.
“We know we’re going to be attacked on those fronts,” he said, adding there are many who would like to use the current economic situation as an “excuse to dismantle benefits for public employees.”
Also, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emboldened by a larger majority, “the bull’s-eye on him is enlarged” and he will need all the help he can get, Burke said.
Reid’s efforts to shepherd bills such as the pro-labor Employee Free Choice Act will face tough opposition from the business community in Nevada as he prepares for a brutal reelection campaign in 2010, said Steven Law, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s chief legal officer and general counsel.
Burke said SEIU and others hope to garner the support Reid needs in Nevada to feel comfortable going to bat for labor issues. The union is still working out how to best accomplish that.
Law said the chamber is gearing up its own grass-roots campaign to oppose much of what the unions support.
“I think what unions have done very well is they have cultivated a significant swatch of members of Congress to support almost reflexively what they want,” Law said. But with many of the labor goals now an actual possibility because of the Democratic majority and not just a theoretical concept, “can they hold all these members to every vote?”
The dynamic is different from the unions’ successful preelection get-out-the-vote effort. Passing legislation comes down to persuading those in the middle, a more nuanced task than motivating the converted.
Their skill at this will be evidenced on the federal level by the success or failure of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that will make it much easier for unions to organize workers. There will be a protracted fight in the Senate, and should the bill be introduced and defeated again, as happened in 2007, that could very likely be the end of it.
The U.S. Chamber, which opposes the bill, focused its energy during the election on highlighting how the bill eliminates secret ballots — a concept easily digested by the voting public. But the organization is switching its strategy to focus on the binding arbitration aspect of the bill — a more complicated issue that makes better fodder for discussions with congressional aides than for TV commercials.
There is a sense that unions need to capitalize early or they could miss their window.
“Now is the time when the unions are at their strongest,” said John Willoughby, professor of economics at American University. “With anger over executive compensation and such, there is a lot of popular sympathy.”