The fate of  the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) over the course of the past year and a half has been largely determined by the White House.  Rahm Emanuel would not let it come up for a vote until after health care was passed, and by that time the Democrats no longer had 60 votes in the Senate.  But its evolution is also intimately tied to the electoral prospects of Harry Reid and Arlen Specter, and unless you understand one, you can’t understand the other.

The SS Reid 2010 Heads For the Iceberg

Harry Reid is up for reelection in 2010, and his prospects have sucked for a long time. Reid’s been struggling against “generic GOP opponent” ever since Barack Obama was inaugurated. The biggest union in Nevada is the Culinary Workers, with 60,000 members. They were key to his reelection in 1998, when their “get out the vote” operation helped him barely eek out at 500 vote victory. He needs their support badly.  The Culinary workers are part of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), headed by John Wilhelm.  HERE had merged with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (Unite) in 2004, which was headed by Bruce Raynor.

The merger between Unite and HERE seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was an uncomfortable marriage from the start.  Things came to a head in early 2009 when Wilhelm tried to push Raynor out.  Harry Reid intervened and tried to settle the dispute between the two, because the last thing he wanted was an internal dispute hurting the ability of the Culinary Workers to turn out for him.

At the time, Unite-HERE was under the Change to Win umbrella with SEIU.  But when Raynor took Unite-HERE and most of its workers to become an affiliate of SEIU, Wilhelm took Unite-HERE back to the AFL-CIO.  Which, as you might imagine, gives newly installed AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka quite a bit of leverage over Reid.  But labor was very much united in their determination to force Reid to bring EFCA to a vote, no matter where Unite-HERE called home.

The Great Specter Switch

Since Obama won the election in 2008, the unions had worked together to whip that magical “60th vote” in the Senate for the Employee Free Choice Act.  Arlen Specter had been the one Republican to vote for cloture on the bill when it came to the floor in 2007, which made him the prime candidate.  It also put him in the sights of all of the anti-EFCA money that was flowing at the time from the Chamber of Commerce and other business outfits, filling the coffers of his primary challenger Pat Toomey.  On March 24, Specter announced out of nowhere that he’d vote against the Employee Free Choice Act.  But the next day, a Quinnipiac poll showed that Specter was already trailing Toomey by 14 points.  The opposition had done its job too well.

On April 28, Specter switched parties.  But his support among Pennsylvania Democrats was sketchy, and unless he changed his tune on EFCA, the unions threatened to support Joe Sestak in a primary challenge.   So Specter joined the negotiations with Senate Democrats trying to reach an accord on EFCA.  Blanche Lincoln had come out in public opposition to the bill, along with a half-dozen other Democrats, but privately was telling Senate Democrats that if it ever came to it, she’d go along.

Tom Harkin was tasked with getting Specter to see the light.  Specter didn’t seem to realize he was a man in danger of losing his seat, and continued to dick everyone around over his personal pet peeve — the mediation/arbitration clause that stops companies from indefinitely delaying contract negotiations.  “Card check,” in the form that most people understood it, was long gone and had been replaced by “mail-in ballots.”  But there was still the matter of how disputes between labor and management would be resolved if they came to an impasse, and Specter held everyone up over that for months.  He eventually proposed “last best final offer” arbitration (also known as baseball arbitration), a compromise that unions could have stomached.

But nothing happened. There were stories about ongoing negotiations in the Senate, but the Employee Free Choice Act fell by the way side as health care heated up. Finally last September, newly minted Democrat Arlen Specter showed up at the AFL-CIO convention and announced that he and his Senate cohorts had reached a compromise on the EFCA language.  And Harkin said that there were 60 votes for it in the Senate.  And Harry Reid very much wanted to bring it to a vote in the Senate and secure the help of the Culinary Workers in his re-election bid, which was looking worse by the day.

Rahm Shuts It Down

By Specter’s September revelation, it was too late.  In August, Richard Trumka stopped by FDL for a chat.  We had the following exchange:

Jane Hamsher:  It’s my understanding Reid wants to bring it to the floor to get the culinary workers in Nevada working on his reelection campaign, but the White House/Rahm may be stopping him because they don’t want Blue Dogs to have to take a “tough” vote right on the heels of health care.

Is there any hope for EFCA before the next election? Our folks have been big supporters and would be very unhappy to hear it.

Richard Trumka: The President/and Emanuel have both said they dont intend to bring Employee Free Choice Act up until Health Insurance Reform is done. Which gives us an additional reason to do Health Insurance Reform now! Teddy Kennedy who would be the 60th vote for cloture has just called on the MA Legislature to come up with a new process to allow the Governor to appoint his successor. Anything that any of you can do to move the process along in MA would be greatly appreciated. We WILL PASS EMPLOYEE FREE CHOICE ACT legislation, we will not allow our ”friends” to pass on this essential part of an economic recovery solution!

The White House put its foot down — they did not want EFCA to come up for a vote until after health care.  So during this period, when there were arguably 60 votes in the Senate to pass a bill (albeit a watered-down one), and Harry Reid was willing to bring it up for a vote, Rahm Emanuel wouldn’t let them do it.

When Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley in January 0f 2010, it took everyone by surprise.  Nate Silver gave Brown a “3-5% chance of winning” less than two weeks before the race, argued against those who called it a “toss-up” four days prior, and on the eve of the election said she could still win.   But Brown’s 52-47 win over Coakley closed the door on any hope of getting EFCA through the Senate.

Some have argued that the unions were wrong to back off of EFCA and work on health care.  But union members overwhelmingly wanted health care reform more than they wanted EFCA.  Nonetheless, the unions did everything they could to pass it, and if the White House had pulled out all the stops for EFCA that they did on health care, it no doubt would have.

Thanks to Rahm’s determination to stop a vote before health care, the only chance to pass the Employee Free Choice Act was in the spring, when health care was in its infancy. With Arlen Specter’s foot dragging, Rahm and the White House had the perfect excuse to delay a vote until it was too late.