If you have a long enough lever, you can move the world. That's an old saying attributed to Archimedes. But what Archimedes didn't add is that a long enough lever may splinter in your hands if the material is not strong enough. You may end up not moving the world where you wanted it to go and finding yourself in a position you didn't want to be in.
That's pretty much the position of organized labor -- the leaders of America's large labor unions -- today. For the past several years, they have been attempting to move the world by pushing for what they call the Employee Free Choice Act -- a more neutral term is card check -- which would effectively abolish the secret ballot in unionization elections and which would impose on unionized employers, after 120 days of bargaining, federal arbitration of wages, benefits and working conditions. Their aim is to vastly increase union membership and union treasuries -- and union contributions to the Democratic Party and its candidates.
The lever they have been using is their political clout. Only 8 percent of private-sector workers are union members today, but nearly half of public sector workers are, and together they pour millions in union dues and "voluntary" contributions to union political funds. The AFL-CIO, the SEIU and other unions have established large and sophisticated political operations over the past several years, run by smart and dedicated people, and enlisting the services of thousands of others.
Unions weren't a major factor in politics in the 1990s, and Bill Clinton largely ignored them. That's different now. Union money and union organizers did yeoman work for Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and union leaders plausibly claim much of the credit for the Democratic capture of both houses of Congress and the White House.
But the lever of political clout has been splintering in their hands. It all seemed so simple just a year or two ago, when George W. Bush was president. The House obediently passed the card-check bill on pretty much a party-line vote. Every Democratic senator not only voted to bring card check to a vote, but also co-sponsored the bill. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter voted to bring it to a vote, too.