Labor and the Democratic divide


Since I'm still in travel mode today, and therefore pressed for time, I'll simply pose a question: Are the Democratic leaders trying to do too much, by pushing now for an ambitious and highly polarizing reform law that would potentially give the beleaguered labor union movement its biggest boost since the New Deal?

Quite possibly, yes.

In politics, it's generally a good idea to know in advance that if you're planning to fire a shot, you will therefore hit the target. But with respect to the labor reform measure that was introduced yesterday - the long-gestating "Employee Free Choice Act" that would make it far easier for workers to unionize - the majority party may well be taking aim at big business without sufficient prospects for success.

At first glance, this battle would seem to merely pit liberals against conservatives, labor against business, Democrats against Republicans. If enacted, the bill would allow workers to skip the traditional secret-ballot process and form unions if a majority signed petition cards stating their desire to unionize; but business insists that the elimination of the secret ballot would expose dissenting workers to harassment from union officials. Business says that its competitiveness would be hurt if workers get more unionizing clout; labor says that it merely wants to level the playing field after decades of successful anti-union harassment from management. And that's just the gist of the divide.

In political terms, however, the potentially biggest divide is among Senate Democrats, because this reform effort appears to pit liberals against moderates within the party ranks. The Senate Democrats need to nail down 60 votes in order to squelch a Republican filibuster and move the bill to a floor vote. But it's hard to see how they'll able to do that.

On paper, they would appear to start with 58 votes (56 Senate Democrats, plus the independents, Joe Lieberman and Bernie Saunders, who caucus with them), thereby requiring them to recruit only two Republicans (presumably Arlen Specter, plus somebody else). That math doesn't seem likely, however. Too many moderate Democratic senators seem to be balking, in part because they're under too much pressure from business interests.

For instance, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas hails from a right-to-work state; one of her biggest constituents is Wall-Mart, which is fiercely fighting the labor reform effort. She's also up for re-election next year. Two other southern Democrats from right-to-work states, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, are also hanging back. Other wild cards include Mark Warner of Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Lincoln's Arkansas colleague, Mark Pryor.

Indeed, there are actually fewer Senate Democratic sponsors this year (40) than there were in 2007, when the reform bill last surfaced in the chamber (46). That's a cinch to explain. Two years ago, more Democrats felt comfortable signing on and posing as labor champions, knowing all along that President Bush would veto the bill. But now that there's actually a greater chance of passage (the House will vote Yes, and President Obama has indicated he would sign), the moderates have cold feet, fearing the lash of business.

And there's another factor: the timing of this controversial bill. To be more precise, the lousy timing. Unlike in 2007, a major recession is now raging, and people are worried about their jobs. This aids business in its current messaging war with labor. Business can argue to the moderates that job creation should be the top priority, and that any measure which hurts competitiveness, or rewards the people who already have jobs, should be consigned a lower priority. I'm not saying that this argument is true or false; I'm merely suggesting that, given the current economic circumstances, the business argument might well be more effective. Indeed, Blanche Lincoln said on Monday that her top concern is the bleak job picture in Arkansas.

Perhaps the Democrats might have a better shot at squeezing out 60 votes if their 59th senator, Al Franken, was finally seated. But we can talk more about that story tomorrow.