With Democrats gaining seven seats in the Senate (and probably an eighth, if and when Al Franken of Minnesota is seated), it seemed pretty simple. Barack Obama has said he'd sign the bill. The House, with 25 more Democrats, would vote for card check again. The 59 Senate Democrats and Specter would cast 60 votes for it in the Senate. Writers sympathetic to unions speculated on how many other Senate Republicans would fall into line.
But it hasn't worked out that way. Now that congressional Democrats face the prospect of casting not a symbolic vote, knowing that a Bush veto was a certainty, but a real vote that will affect the real world, they started having qualms. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi let it be known that the House would not vote on card check till the Senate acted. In other words, if I'm going to ask some of my members to cast a tough vote, one that will be hard to explain in their districts, I want to be sure the Senate won't undercut them.
As for the Senate, Specter announced he won't vote for card check. Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, up for re-election in 2010, said she wouldn't, either. Michael Bennet, the Democrat appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat in Colorado, who faces the voters in 2010, said card check can't pass in its present form. The unions' 60 seems headed down toward 50 and maybe below.
The unions are blaming this on selfish big business. The real problem is that it's hard to defend a law that effectively abolishes the secret ballot. When nobody's looking and it's not for real, politicians may vote that way. But not when it's for keeps. Moreover, as General Motors and Chrysler spiral toward bankruptcy, it's not apparent that adversarial unionism is healthy for the economy. It's not clear that imposing federal arbitration on the private sector is a recipe for economic growth. Certainly it's not a recipe for innovation or flexibility at a time when businesses need them more than ever.
Union sympathizers are now talking about fallback positions. But it's not clear that a bill with minor changes that does not effectively abolish the secret ballot and impose federal arbitration will produce the vast increase in unionization that union leaders seek. There's not much polling showing that vast numbers of private sector workers yearn for union representation.
The unions' lever was strong, but not strong enough to move the world as far as they wanted. And now that it's splintering in their hands, the question is what position they'll be in when they land on the ground.