EFCA’s Backers Still Have Work To Do

Gallup has an interesting poll out today on union formation, a particularly relevant topic as Congress begins to debate the Employee Free Choice Act. The poll reveals that a majority of Americans are sympathetic to the idea of easing union formation, which is at the heart of EFCA’s purpose.

Let’s be careful here, however: that Americans support an easier path toward unionization in the abstract does not mean that they support any and all potential mechanisms toward achieving that goal. They might plausibly think that EFCA is the wrong means toward the right end.

Indeed, the poll provides some evidence that Americans who know the most about EFCA are the least sympathetic toward it:

Support for an EFCA-like policy declines the more closely that someone has been following the debate about it. There are a couple of plausible explanations for this. One is that the debate has been followed more closely by those who were less likely to support unions in the first place. For example, has the debate over EFCA principally been taking place in right-wing media outlets?

If so, I don’t see much evidence of it. I ran a quick search on Google News for “hits” on the phrase “Employee Free Choice Act”. Newspapers with a paid circulation of 200,000 or more and which endorsed Barack Obama have mentioned EFCA an average of 5.1 times over the course of the past month:

22 Los Angeles Times16 Philadelphia Inquirer14 Washington Post13 Denver Post9 Miami Herald9 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette8 Kansas City Star8 Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel8 Newsday7 Boston Globe7 Minneapolis Star-Tribune6 San Francisco Chronicle6 Chicago Tribune6 Orlando Sentinel5 Detroit Free Press5 Sacramento Bee5 Hartford Courant5 New York Times5 San Jose Mercury News5 Atlanta Journal-Constitution5 Cleveland Plain-Dealer4 Houston Chronicle3 Baltimore Sun3 Fort Worth Star-Telegram3 Buffalo News2 Raleigh News & Observer2 Seattle Times2 Des Monies Register1 Chicago Sun-Times1 Louisville Courier-Journal1 St. Louis Post-Dispatch1 New York Daily News1 Newark Star-Ledger0 Charlotte Observer0 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel0 The Tennessean0 The Oregonian0 Austin American-Statesman0 St. Petersburg Times

By contrast, the (few) large newspapers that endorsed McCain have barely mentioned EFCA — an average of just 1.2 hits over the past month:

5 San Diego Union Tribune4 Richmond Times-Dispatch2 The Oklahoman1 Dallas Morning News1 Arizona Republic1 Cincinnati Enquirer0 New York Post0 Columbus Dispatch0 San Antonio Express-News0 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette0 Tampa Tribune0 Omaha World-Herald

So most of the EFCA debate — at least in the print world — is occurring in places that ought to be reasonably sympathetic toward the initiative.

The problem seems to be, rather, that the debate is mostly being engaged in on the right’s terms. The phrase “secret ballot” occurs in conjunction with 34% of Google News hits on EFCA; by contrast, the phrase “right to organize” occurs in conjunction with just 2%.

EFCA’s advocates, in other words, may be too busy playing defense. They also may also overestimate the extent to which most Americans tend to feel sympathetic toward unions. Although most of the public supports the right to unionize, the public feels far more ambivalent about unions themselves.

While a certain amount of anti-corporate populism can probably be productive in this environment, I don’t know that the unions fundamentally want to make this a narrative about class conflict. Many working-class Americans are in industries that — EFCA or not — are not especially conducive to union formation, and others may see unions as advancing the particular objectives of their members, but not those of the working class as a whole. Polling has generally revealed that more Americans support the right to union formation than would want to form a union themselves.

The more effective framing, rather, might be in normative rather than economic terms. That is, don’t focus on the benefits of unionization, but rather on the right to union formation. For example: the ability to form a union is a fundamental American right, companies are routinely infringing upon that right, and EFCA is necessary to protect that right. This would also provide for a stronger rebuttal to the “secret ballot” talking point (“EFCA would deprive employees of their right to a secret ballot”), which is oriented precisely along these lines.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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