Archive for the ‘Employee Free Choice Act’ Category

Calbuzz Dustbin of History: DiFi’s First Labor Squeeze

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

dianneworriedHunger-striking union protesters unhappy with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s lack of support for labor’s top priority bill in Congress picketed her San Francisco office this week — while Chamber of Commerce lobbyists insisted to her in Washington there can “no compromise” on the legislation.

For those who watched her formative political years, Feinstein’s stance, squarely in the middle of the controversy over labor’s bid to make it easier for workers to join unions and get contracts through the Employee Free Choice Act, is a familiar one. As a city politician in 1970s San Francisco, an era of constant and sometimes violent labor strife, DiFi repeatedly tried, without much success, to thread the needle between what Marx called “the fundamental contradiction” between workers and bosses.

Today the Calbuzz Dustbin of History sweeps us back to 1974, when DiFi was president of the Board of Supervisors and positioning herself to run what would become her second (failed) campaign for mayor the next year.

One of the year’s biggest local stories (along with the racially motivated “Zebra murders” and the kidnap of Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army) was a strike by city workers represented by the Service Employees International Union, whose members had received tiny or no pay increases in a new contract passed by the board. Aided by thousands of sympathetic transit union workers, the SEIU strike kept San Francisco in turmoil for nine days, snarling traffic, stranding commuters, closing hospitals and resulting in raw sewage being dumped in the Bay.

DiFi and her supervisorial colleagues caved in and came up with $4.5 million in new compensation and benefits for SEIU to settle the strike, but it fueled a backlash among homeowners outraged over skyrocketing property tax bills (anger that soon enough would be channeled into passage of Proposition 13).

Trying to tap into the anti-tax, anti-labor mood in preparation for her mayoral bid, without totally alienating the political potent unions, Feinstein put on the ballot a measure called Proposition L, to bypass contract negotiations by pegging public employee salaries to other large cities and counties, but also reserving the city’s right to award sweetheart fringe benefits.

The unions denounced Prop. L as a union-busting tool, while conservative pols (there were some in S.F. then) and homeowner groups opposed it as more the same, over-generous City Hall giveaways gussied up as reform.

Presaging last week’s protest at her office, SEIU at one point organized a “female only picket line” in front of Feinstein’s Pacific Heights home, bashing her both for Prop. L and for crossing a picket line at SF General Hospital during the strike. Maxine Jenkins, a powerful local union leader of the time, got to the heart of the problem labor often had Difi:

“While Dianne casts herself as the representative for women’s issues…and rides on the back of the women’s movement, she is unworthy of support from women, as she works against the basic survival needs of the city’s poorest working women and represents instead wealthy members of the Chamber of Commerce. The lowest paid city workers are women…Contrary to popular belief, women do not work for pin money or luxuries for themselves and their families.”

On election day, Prop. L went down to defeat, beaten by the strange bedfellow alliance of labor and anti-tax voters. That foreshadowed what would happen to her campaign for the mayor next year, when she finished third, squeezed between a liberal and a conservative in the middle of the road (where Jim Hightower famously said the only thing you find are “yellow stripes and dead armadillos”).

In the current EFCA fight, Feinstein is the only California Democratic member of Congress to not support the bill; at the same time, she has rejected the Chamber of Commerce push to oppose any such legislation.

“I am working to find common ground between the needs of both business and labor in order to reach a bipartisan solution,” she said this week, in a prepared statement released by her office.

The more things change…

Another View of DiFi’s Stand on Labor’s Top Issue

Monday, March 30th, 2009

We argued here two weeks ago that Dianne Feinstein will not run for governor of California in 2010 — although that’s the job she’s always wanted most — because she has such key roles in the U.S. Senate, would have to fight through nasty primary and general elections, would expose her husband’s business deals to opposition research and because, at this late stage in her life, wrangling the legislative gnomes in Sacramento would be incredibly distasteful to her.

But if you want to read a pretty good counter-argument about why Dianne might run, read Nate Silver’s take at fivethirtyeight.com. Nate is a brilliant guy whose mathematical analysis of polling data during the 2008 presidential election was extraordinarily accurate. He sees Feinstein’s stand against the Employee Free Choice Act — labor’s No. 1 issue before Congress — as an indication that she IS running.

Now Nate’s not an expert in California politics and there are some weaknesses in his argument. — like the fact that were Feinstein to run, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom would get out which might leave labor to rally around Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (a former labor leader himself), Attorney General Jerry Brown or another candidate. So labor might not be as divided as Nate suggests. And yes, Feinstein’s stand might help her suck up corporate contributions for the general. But she’d do that anyway and it still would not be as much as Republicans Meg Whitman, the former EBay CEO, or Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, could throw at the race.

Still, Nate’s analysis is worth a read. You can find it here.

Feinstein Deals Major Blow to Landmark Labor Bill

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office put out a low-ball statement Friday making clear she won’t be supporting the Employee Free Choice Act, the labor movement’s top congressional priority, at least in its present form.

The little-noticed move makes Feinstein the only Democrat in the California congressional delegation to withhold backing for the Employee Free Choice Act.

As a policy matter, the measure would make it easier for employees to organize unions; as a political one, it would give President Obama, who campaigned in support of the legislation, and majority Democrats in Congress, a visible achievement on behalf of workers at a time of seething public anger at CEOs and corporations.

A co-sponsor of the legislation in the last Congress, Feinstein in recent days has been the target of an organized netroots campaign to pressure her into coming out in favor of the bill. The online effort came during a three-day Capitol Hill lobbying effort by the Teamsters, which sent a delegation to her office Thursday.

While Feinstein does not face re-election until 2012 as a senator, her flip-flop on labor’s most crucial legislation would be problematic in a contested Democratic primary for governor — another sign that she is unlikely to enter the race for governor next year.

Given the political stakes of Feinstein’s action, it’s surprising how little notice it received, no doubt one of the reasons her statement was released on a Friday afternoon. Beyond a few liberal blogs, James Oliphant of the L.A. Times Washington bureau was the only mainstream media reporter to file on it, in a piece his editors played inside the A section.

“I have thought for some time that the way to approach this issue is by trying to see if there can’t be a compromise between the business community, the agriculture community and labor,” Feinstein’s statement said. “This is an extraordinarily difficult economy, and feelings are very strong on both sides of the issue. I would hope there is some way to find common ground that would be agreeable to both business and labor.”

Merits of the legislation aside, Feinstein’s can’t-we-all-get-along statement is breathtaking in blithely ignoring a) what some might term, uh, the fundamental contradiction between capital and labor and b) the fact that the “extraordinarily difficult economy” is a key reason organized labor is pushing for the free choice act, which was introduced on March 13. According to the AFL-CIO’s home page blog, “(W)orkers who belong to unions earn 28 percent more than non-union workers. They are 52 percent more likely to have employer-provided health coverage and nearly three times more likely to have guaranteed pensions.”

As a communications matter, business and corporate lobbyists won the framing debate on the issue. They succeeded in short-handing the bill as “card check” and in focusing media attention on a provision of it that would allow a union to be certified without an election if a majority of employees signed union cards. The bill also would increase penalties for firing workers for participating in an organizing campaign and require companies to submit to arbitration if they could not reach agreement on a contract with a newly certified union after four months. The latter is perhaps the biggest concern for business.

Feinstein’s move came one day after Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter announced on the Senate floor that he would not support the labor law reform. Taken together, the loss of the two Senators is a major tactical defeat for its sponsors, because they need 60 votes to move it out of the Senate to the House, where it was expected to pass more easily. Specter was the one Republican that labor hoped to get to vote in their favor, in addition to all 59 Democrats (assuming Minnesota’s Al Franken gets seated sometime this century).

A proposed “third way” compromise was put forward last week by executives from Whole Foods, Costco and Starbuck’s, but labor leaders denounced it as a pro-business gutting of their proposal.

Feinstein’s position is in sharp contrast to Senator Barbara Boxer, who gave the kickoff speech last week at a Washington convention of Teamster organizers who gathered to lobby Congress on the free choice act.

Boxer was introduced by Teamster President Jim Hoffa as “our friend” and one of 41 senators who have signed on to the bill as co-sponsors. “For me, it’s a family thing,” Boxer said, adding that her husband’s father had been a Teamster. She said she was behind the bill “for the good of the country and for a strong middle class.”