If you ever want a window into the needs and desires of the labor movement, you should listen to Stewart Acuff. And if you get within 50 yards of Acuff, you'll be listening: The snow-bearded activist, now the AFL-CIO's director of organizing, projects his voice like an opera singer. He grips the podium, white-knuckled. He clasps his hands, then pulls them apart with a snap. When I saw him at the Take Back America conference in Washington in March, his reedy voice grew rougher and louder as his speech went on.
"My brothers and sisters," he said, "if we go into 2008 with an even larger mobilization of workers behind this legislation, with even more commitment to win the election in 2008, and put this on the agenda in 2009, I'm here to tell you today that we will pass this legislation, in the House, overwhelmingly! We will pass it in the Senate! We will defeat a Republican filibuster! And we will have a president who signs the Employee Free Choice Act! And we can get back to the business of restoring the American dream for millions and millions of workers!"
What's the Employee Free Choice Act? If you aren't a lobbyist in Washington, a union worker, or an employer nervously trying to prevent your staff from organizing, you might not have followed the twisty history of the latest attempt to increase private-sector unionization. "Card check," as it is usually known, would allow employees at a company to bypass secret-ballot elections and declare their intent to unionize by simply signing cards. If adopted, it could portend the most revolutionary change to labor law since the 1940s.
The battle over card check is part of a much larger story of Campaign '08: the coming-out party of Democratic interest groups. For the first time since 1992, Democrats are eyeing complete control of the executive and legislative branches, with all of the spoils of appointment and legislative scheduling that would entail. Unions want to grow their numbers. Green industries want tax incentives. Trial lawyers want a ceasefire in the war on torts.
If these groups could actually form a line in January, the unions would be at the front. Card check was the brainchild of organizers who had watched their numbers tumble as manufacturing jobs moved out of the rust belt and successive conservative administrations made it tougher to organize. President Bill Clinton, signer of NAFTA, did little to stop the skid from labor's point of view. The organizers have learned their lessons, pushing members of the House and Senate—including the junior senators from New York and Illinois—to commit in writing to card check.
"When we started working on this legislation five years ago," Acuff said at Take Back America, "people in Washington said it would never be taken seriously, never pass the laugh test." Bills were introduced in 2003, 2005, and 2007. The first two times, they never reached the floor, with Republicans arguing that labor organizers usually win unionization elections anyway and that 90 percent of those results are approved by the federal government's National Labor Relations Board within two months. In 2007, with the Democrats in charge of the legislature, the same bill passed the House easily and won 51 votes in the Senate, but that wasn't enough to proceed to an up-or-down vote. All along, the effort has faced a veto threat from President Bush.
Things are different now. Democrats believe that as many as nine Republican-held Senate seats are vulnerable in 2008. The AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and allied unions plan to spend $360 million on the 2008 election. That's around $200 million more than the unions spent in the Kerry-Bush race. As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton slug it out for the nomination, the AFL-CIO is running a $53 million campaign attacking John McCain—portraying him as a right-wing ideologue who co-sponsored the Secret Ballot Protection Act, the GOP's attempt at making kryptonite against card check.
All that union money comes with a promise: What's good for unions will be good for the Democrats. Greg Tarpinian, a Change to Win organizer who spoke at the Take Back America panel, pointed out that union membership was one of the strongest determinants for a voter choosing a Democratic ballot. "If union membership was 10 percent in Ohio in 2004," he argued, "John Kerry would be president."
If card check passes, Tarpinian has only one worry: the ability of the National Labor Relations Board to "keep up with the demand" for brand new unions. Those new brothers and sisters of the labor movement will start paying dues; said dues will find their way to new Democratic campaigns like salmon finding their way upstream.
Republicans and business lobbyists are watching all of this with a sense of resigned horror. They know Democrats will have the votes, and they believe that the end of secret ballot elections will be not just bad for business, but bad for democracy. They also see card check as the tip of a spear. One Republican staffer worried to me about collective bargaining rights for public employees. "Do we really want fire-fighters to start striking?" he asked.
The unions stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of an all-Democratic Washington. Affordable housing advocates, meanwhile, want the 2007 Federal Housing Finance Reform Act, which created a $3 billion fund bankrolled with tax revenue and the profits of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, to be spent on more housing units instead of held up by concerns over budget deficits. Trial lawyers have paid their dues: The American Association for Justice spent $6.3 million to elect Democrats in 2006 through its political action committee, the most of any single PAC. For the first half of this decade, the plaintiffs industry fought a rearguard action against the tort reform movement, which Republicans have been using to limit the size of settlements. Trial lawyers lost a big battle when the Senate passed class action lawsuit reform in 2005, but they haven't given much ground since then. When the Democrats come back, plaintiffs expect to go back on offense.
The Consumer Product Safety Reform Act, passed this year, is a model of what to expect in a Democratic future. The law doubled funding for the eponymous safety commission to $155 million by 2015, set no caps on damages, and empowered state attorneys general to make federal cases if they have "reason to believe that the interests of the residents of that State have been, or are being, threatened or adversely affected by a violation" of consumer safety. It passed the Democratic-controlled Senate by 79-13, aided by the scare over tainted toys from China.
But unions outmatch every other member of the Democratic coalition in demands and expectations. Now is their time. One organizer told me that a Democratic comeback would mean that the party had "no more excuses" for not giving them what they wanted. At Take Back America, Acuff said the party should gift-wrap anything wavering Republicans want if it will get the bill to a floor vote. "If we have to build a bridge somewhere to get it passed, then build the damn bridge!" he said. "If we have to rename a highway after somebody, rename the highway!"
Another activist, relaxing after a day of sessions and meetings, regaled me with stories of how businesses bust unions, how the National Labor Relations Board punctures budding movements, and how essential it was to change the system. He repeated my question back to me. "If we get a Democratic president, are we going to pass card check?" He leaned back and grabbed a Miller Lite from one of his brothers coming back from the bar. "If the sun comes up in the morning, we're passing card check."
David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.