The 2008 general election is over, with Barack Obama winning the race for president and Susan Collins easily being re-elected over challenger Tom Allen to represent Maine in the U.S. Senate.
But Mainers are still seeing issue ads similar to those broadcast frequently in the months, weeks and days leading up to the election. The Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that received substantial attention in the Senate race between Collins and Allen, is the subject of new ads getting airtime weeks after the election ended.
Opponents of the bill say it is undemocratic because it would deny workers the right to a private ballot and lead to intimidation of workers by labor organizers.
Supporters say employers already intimidate workers when it comes to union votes and that the bill simply would shift control of unionization votes from employers to workers.
A group calling itself Americans for Job Security began running a television ad in Maine last week that accuses Democratic leaders in Congress of wanting “to deny workers the right to a secret ballot in union organizing elections.” The ad shows grainy footage of Sens. Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi but does not refer to them by their names.
“Maybe it’s a payoff to the union bosses. Or maybe it’s just another Washington double standard,” the narrator says.
American Rights at Work, a group that supports the bill, has been running a different ad that shows executives in a conference room offering a worker health benefits, a pension and a raise.
“If you think this is going to happen by itself, you’re dreaming,” the narrator says.
But why now, after the election? Aren’t voters burned out on political ads? Hasn’t the vote — which has given Democrats a larger hold on the House and a clearly defined majority in the Senate — already determined how much support the proposal will get in the new Congress?
“I have no idea,” Chris Potholm, a government and political science professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, said last week about the timing of the ads. “They might as well throw their money in the Androscoggin River.”
Potholm acknowledged that the ads could be attempts to drum up public sentiment about the bill, but that it is not likely to rise to the top of the public’s concerns.
“When you think of the 200 other things voters should be worried about, this must be number 196,” he said.
The public’s more likely concerns, Potholm added, are “‘my retirement is gone [and] my mortgage is blown up.’”
But Josh Goldstein, spokesman for American Rights at Work, said Monday that the aim of his group’s ad is to educate the public about the bill. Opponents of the proposal have attempted to paint it as an attempt to deny workers the right to a private ballot, he said, but that is not accurate.
What the Employee Free Choice Act would do, according to Goldstein, is let workers control the process of deciding whether to join a union.
As it is now, it is up to employers to decide whether their employees have to hold a vote about joining a union and when that vote will occur, Goldstein said. EFCA would let workers determine whether and when to hold a ballot vote, he said. It would establish penalties for employers that illegally resist unionization efforts and would set a timeline by which employers and workers must reach a contract if workers favor joining a union.
“There’s still a fight to be had because the fight isn’t over until the bill is decided,” Goldstein said of airing the ad. “We’re into the next phase.”
He said that after the new Congress is sworn in on Jan. 5, the House and Senate each are expected to reconsider the bill. The House, which now has a larger Democratic majority, is expected to approve the bill again. It previously approved the bill in March 2007 when Maine’s congressmen, U.S. Reps. Tom Allen and Michael Michaud, voted in favor of it.
Goldstein said the main battle over the bill, if there is one, likely will be in the Senate. The bill should be part of any new economic stimulus package Congress looks to approve, he said.
“I think it’s going to be a top priority,” Goldstein said. “It’s long overdue.”
The American Rights at Work ad is scheduled to air nationwide for three weeks, according to Goldstein.
Stephen DeMaura, president of Americans for Job Security, said Tuesday that his group’s ad started airing nationwide a little over a week ago. It is running for 10 days over a full two-week period.
The purpose of the ad is to draw attention to the issue as it comes up for debate again in Congress, he said.
“This is an ongoing piece of legislation and likely will be considered by Congress in the first 100 days of the new administration,” DeMaura said. “We feel it is important to maintain a presence on the air.”
DeMaura said his group opposes the bill because would it effectively eliminate the secret ballot from workplace union votes. Enabling workers to decide whether to join a union simply by publicly signing a card could lead to coercion of workers, either for or against the unionization effort, by labor organizers and by businesses, he said.
DeMaura said such coercion could harm businesses and workers who are struggling to get by.
“It is the last thing we need in these economic times,” he said. “We are trying to maintain pressure on the Senate to defeat this legislation.”
Sandy Maisel, government professor and director of the Goldfarb Center at Colby College in Waterville, was skeptical that either ad would have much of an effect on public opinion. He indicated last week in an e-mail that he also finds the ads’ appearances after the election “unusual.”
The ads may be aimed at people who have donated money to the groups “to show that they are still working,” Maisel speculated. All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation — Collins, Sen. Olympia Snowe, Michaud and U.S. Rep.-elect Chellie Pingree — have made their positions on the Employee Free Choice Act known, he said. Michaud and Pingree each have expressed support for the bill, while Collins and Snowe have said they oppose it.
“I cannot see how any of them would be responding to any constituent views stimulated by [these ads],” Maisel wrote.
But James Melcher, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington, said the ads could generate public discussion of the issue, which likely would put greater scrutiny on the Senate when it votes on the bill. Each side may be concerned about the other being more vocal, he wrote Friday by e-mail, and so each may be trying to counter the other’s arguments early.
“This is a time, with a new administration coming in, that varying interests are jockeying to make sure their issues will get attention,” Melcher wrote. “Getting on the political agenda early on makes it more likely that it will be dealt with.”
The Senate voted on the bill before the recent election, but the vote essentially stalled after it broke down along party lines to a tie. Now that the Democrats have a clear majority in the Senate and President-elect Obama has voiced support for the bill, the new Senate essentially will have final say over the proposal.
During the recent Senate race, Collins said she is opposed to the bill because it would take away the right to a private vote.
Snowe also opposes the bill, according to an aide.
“She believes workers have a right to vote their conscience in a confidential environment,” John Gentzel, Snowe’s spokesman, wrote recently in an e-mail.