NOW that President Obama is settling into office, there is an issue Democrats will be forced to face: Is card check certification Obama’s Hillary Care? The answer to this question will have profound consequences for the Democratic Party, the labor movement that invested huge sums of money in the 2008 election, and U.S. workers more broadly.
Much has been made about the fact the team that managed the transition for President Obama studied the successes and failures of the Clinton presidency. President Clinton was seen to overreach in his first two years by pursuing initiatives such as Hillary Care, which proposed to nationalize health care. The voters severely punished the Democrats in the 1994 midterm elections by handing control of the Senate and more notably the House of Representatives to the Republicans for the first time since 1954.
Clinton’s presidency was resurrected and deemed highly successful after the painful losses of the 1994 midterm elections. Clinton chose, some say was forced, to the middle by the Republicans on a number of issues. Welfare was reformed to stress work, free trade was extended in North America and to a lesser extent globally, and taxes were reduced under the Clinton presidency post-1994. The result of these policies was a robust and prosperous economy.
The team that managed the transition for President Obama spent a great deal of time and energy analyzing these successes and failures. Indeed, a number of pundits credited the selection of mainly centrist economists to Obama’s economic team as a result of the analysis of the Clinton experience.
The question now, however, is whether President Obama will keep his long-standing commitment to the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which could represent his Hillary Care. As a U.S. senator, Obama was an avid supporter of the bill and as a candidate, he vowed that it would become law.
The EFCA, if passed as currently proposed, will fundamentally shift the balance of power in the country’s labor markets to big unions and impose serious costs on American workers in the form of lower investment and less job creation.
The bill’s most prominent provision is a change in the way unions are certified to represent workers. Currently, 30 percent of workers need to show support by signing union cards, followed by a secret ballot election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The EFCA would allow unions to be automatically certified when 50 percent plus one of workers simply sign union cards.
There would no longer be a need or requirement for anonymous secret-ballot voting to authorize union representation. Research into how labor markets function informs us that these changes will result in serious economic costs for American workers.
Beyond these economic costs, however, exist potentially serious political costs. Card check poses a number of threats to the Democrats in Congress and Obama’s presidency.
It would provide a galvanizing issue for the Republicans to fight against going into the 2010 mid-term elections, and it would create a solidified coalition of interests in the business community, including small and large businesses alike, that would align themselves with the Republican Party.
It would also create serious fissures within the Democratic Party itself. Democrats from nonunion districts along with party members committed to the democratic principles of elections will likely speak out strongly against this union-motivated legislation.
Finally, it will project a public image of the Democratic Party as being in the pockets of big labor and uninterested in the plight of average, nonunionized workers. Remember that 7.5 percent of private sector workers are currently union members. That’s a lot of workers who could turn against the Democrats if they are seen as out of touch with average folks.
President Obama’s team would be well advised to reflect on the economic costs that passage of EFCA would impose on American workers as well as the likely political costs. Passing laws that benefit a small few at the expense of the many is no way to begin an historic presidency.
Jason Clemens is the director of research at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco (www.pacificresearch.org).