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Saturday, March 28, 2009

"Business Beats Card Check—For Now".

Business Beats Card Check—For Now
But can Corporate America stay united?

The business community is dancing a victory jig over Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's announcement that he'll provide the crucial vote to stop Big Labor's top priority, the "card check" bill. Fair enough, though the real test of corporate America is yet to come.

Arlen Specter.

Mr. Specter has been in the hot seat, the one Republican who had previously voted to debate card check -- legislation that would eliminate secret ballots in union elections. Up for re-election next year in a big union state, he was under intense pressure to again help his labor allies by giving Democrats the filibuster-breaking vote.

He might have done it, too. Instead, the business community managed something it has not managed in years: unity. Hundreds of companies, industry groups and organizations made clear that should he support the bill, an unwavering business front would expend all its resources to elect a different Republican in next year's primary.

They were able to back up that threat in part because they'd successfully turned what had been a dry question of labor law into an emotional, grass-roots issue. For more than a year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups have doggedly run ads and held events to explain card check to voters. Surveys show that the more Americans know about the bill's antidemocratic provisions, the more they hate it.

That public awareness had allowed Club for Growth President Pat Toomey -- who in 2004 narrowly lost a primary to Mr. Specter -- to start beating the senator with card check in anticipation of a rematch. A Quinnipiac poll this week showed the senator trailing Mr. Toomey 27% to 41% in a matchup. The conservative base is angry over Mr. Specter's vote for the Obama stimulus, but card check wasn't helping.

Meanwhile, the bill's introduction in Congress set off a frenzy for Mr. Specter's vote, and unions became so desperate that Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President William George publicly crowed that he had promised to change Democrats into Republicans for the primary to help Mr. Specter win. Faced with the possibility that he might now be accused of being bought off, Mr. Specter finally wrote off the legislation.

In theory, his decision to join his 40 GOP colleagues in a filibuster kills the bill. In reality, the business community just moved into a far more dangerous phase. Big Labor spent a fortune to elect Barack Obama and other Democrats and get card check; it won't give up. And the unions know the corporate world has a history of fracturing.

All of which explains why, in the past weeks, the new talking point is "compromise." The union goal is to gin up support for a watered-down version of "card check," one that nervous Senate Democrats such as Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln or Colorado's Michael Bennet (both up for election) -- as well as a Republican or two -- would feel comfortable putting on the floor for debate. Once the unions fly past a filibuster, they could then "fix" the bill back to the way they like it.

To make this strategy work, the unions need some in the business community to provide political cover to Senate supporters. Democrats took their first stab at this late last week, when news leaked that the CEOs of three companies -- Whole Foods, Starbucks and Costco -- were breaking with the rest of the business world to support some sort of compromise, although the details were vague.

The point man was former Clinton counsel Lanny Davis, who remains tight with this White House. The objective was to present a "bipartisan" plan, lure other nervous businesses into discussions, and thus inspire a string of defections.

To corporate America's credit, it didn't take the bait. Instead the anti-card-check forces united to publicly scream "no compromise." At the same time, left-leaning blogs, congressmen and unions themselves began bashing the group for agreeing to negotiate. By the time the chastened group actually held its press call, it wasn't embracing a compromise so much as a general set of principles -- which helpfully included support for the secret ballot.

"Talk of a compromise at this stage is like giving away runs in the ninth inning," says Rhonda Bentz of the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace.

In recent years, standard operating procedure has been for the business world to split apart in pursuit of self-interest or to get cold feet. Card check has so far been an exception, but the pressure will only increase. Left-leaning labor lawyers and lobbyists keep whispering in their corporate clients' ears that card check will indeed pass, and that they'd better cut a deal while they can. Senate Democrats are testing the waters with their home-state business communities, looking to horse trade other goodies in return for card-check indulgence.

These tactics have worked in the past. But the lesson of card check so far is that, united, the business world still wields extraordinary clout. So extraordinary that it has managed to bottle up Big Labor's top priority in a town now run exclusively by labor's Democratic patrons. Business's continued unity, or lack of it, will decide what happens next.

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