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.
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.