Making sausage out of 'card check'

My curious little state of Arkansas, conservative and nominally Democratic, is something of a ground zero in the raging battle between management and labor over whether to allow unions to be formed by the filing of employee cards.

Wal-Mart sprang from this state and keeps its headquarters here. Whenever you talk with labor officials about modern abuses by employers that have denied workers decent benefits, competitive pay and the free exercise of their legal right to choose to align with a union for representation in collective bargaining, they cite Wal-Mart as the biggest offender.

Beyond that, any remote hope labor has of getting 60 votes to break a filibuster and get the bill adopted in the Senate -- a hope dealt a probably fatal blow last week by Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter's opposition -- depends on unanimous Democratic support that is, as-yet, wholly unachieved in Arkansas.

Both centrist Democratic senators from Arkansas decline for now to support the measure or cloture.

So it came to be that Stewart Acuff, assistant to president of the national AFL-CIO and organized labor's chief national organizer, came through Arkansas last week. His purpose was to meet with supporters to try to prod them into getting in touch with their senators.

He found it a worthwhile use of his time to spend nearly 90 minutes talking with a columnist sometimes left of center but who thinks card check goes too far. His message was compelling.

With the implicit and explicit support of modern conservative Republicans, American employers have mastered the tactics -- with the help of a cottage industry of law firms -- to bust unions or defeat their start-up. Management has pressured employees during union elections, even with threats that are illegal, but for which there has been scant enforcement and which carry no civil or criminal penalties, anyway.

As a result, Acuff contends, only two things have melted down, one being the once-great American middle class and the other being the American economy.

Naturally, he says the solution is letting unions get formed by card signatures while management gets stripped of its right to insist on elections.

But he did not object when I said the temperature seemed right for compromise. He agreed that Specter's announcement "didn't help." He didn't argue when I predicted the two Arkansas Democrats would, if forced, vote against both the bill and cloture. In fact, he seemed to suggest compromise might be on the horizon.

"Will sausage get made here? Probably," Acuff replied to his own question. In the common political vernacular, sausage-making is when things get worked out politically. It's not pretty. You may not wish to watch.

Acuff also said, tellingly, I thought: "Regardless of the details, we will restore the freedom of workers to bargain collectively." And this: "It's a very dynamic process ... and we will find a way to make it happen."

"Regardless of details" and "very dynamic process" are potentially strong words in this debate, and I had not heard them from labor before.

The most obvious compromise would be keeping secret-ballot elections, but scheduling them faster and regulating abuses more vigorously.

There are anti-labor commentators warning management not to negotiate unilaterally on the Senate side while the House passes "card check" as labor wants it, saying that would send the conflict to a labor-friendly conference committee.

But then there are the Blue Dog Democrats -- conservative House Democrats from Arkansas and other places -- who don't want to have to bite the bullet for the party on this bill.

All of that is to say reports of forthcoming sausage-making may not be at all exaggerated.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@