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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 Times
16 Philadelphia Inquirer
14 Washington Post
13 Denver Post
9 Miami Herald
9 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
8 Kansas City Star
8 Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
8 Newsday
7 Boston Globe
7 Minneapolis Star-Tribune
6 San Francisco Chronicle
6 Chicago Tribune
6 Orlando Sentinel
5 Detroit Free Press
5 Sacramento Bee
5 Hartford Courant
5 New York Times
5 San Jose Mercury News
5 Atlanta Journal-Constitution
5 Cleveland Plain-Dealer
4 Houston Chronicle
3 Baltimore Sun
3 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
3 Buffalo News
2 Raleigh News & Observer
2 Seattle Times
2 Des Monies Register
1 Chicago Sun-Times
1 Louisville Courier-Journal
1 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
1 New York Daily News
1 Newark Star-Ledger
0 Charlotte Observer
0 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
0 The Tennessean
0 The Oregonian
0 Austin American-Statesman
0 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 Tribune
4 Richmond Times-Dispatch
2 The Oklahoman
1 Dallas Morning News
1 Arizona Republic
1 Cincinnati Enquirer
0 New York Post
0 Columbus Dispatch
0 San Antonio Express-News
0 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
0 Tampa Tribune
0 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 founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.