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Labor looks for help in Arkansas

Senators could break precedent with pro-union votes.

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NO HELP: Sens. Pryor and Bumpers opposed labor reform.
  • NO HELP: Sens. Pryor and Bumpers opposed labor reform.


Arkansas’s status as a one-party state helped several Arkansas politicians rise to national prominence but it has had a mixed impact on Arkansas unions. Business people have participated in the party to a far greater extent than in other states. Add to this the modest strength of unions in Arkansas and the result has been contentious battles to win the votes of Arkansas’s two senators on labor law issues.

During the past three decades, labor unions have come up short in efforts to reform the nation’s labor law. Votes supporting filibusters from Arkansas senators have been important to these setbacks but there are signs that the outcome might be different this time. Unions are campaigning for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and it may be that Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor will help give a much-needed boost to workers’ right to form unions and win collective bargaining rights.

It’s not that Arkansas unionists were asleep at the switch in earlier reform efforts. They campaigned hard but business had long ago created a climate hostile to unions. Planter violence against African-American sharecroppers in the infamous Elaine Massacre in 1919 and against the interracial Southern Tenant Farmers Union in the 1930s established an anti-union culture. There were legal obstacles, too, a 1943 Anti-Violence Act directed not against the planters but against CIO organizing efforts, and a 1944 Right to Work constitutional amendment outlawing the union shop.

The more liberal politics of the civil rights era led to a campaign by unions, the Arkansas Council of Churches and other liberal groups to repeal the Right to Work amendment in 1976. Obtaining nearly 150,000 signatures to place repeal on the ballot, the coalition argued that repeal would bring economic progress and higher wages. A well-funded campaign by business groups, however, persuaded 64 percent of voters to reject repeal.

Although discouraged by this defeat, Arkansas trade unionists joined in the national campaign for a Labor Law Reform bill after Jimmy Carter became president. The focus was on speeding up National Labor Relations Board election procedures, giving unions a chance to counter employers’ anti-union campaigning at the workplace and discouraging employers from firing workers seeking to organize unions.

The Arkansas AFL-CIO held rallies and delivered 8,000 postcards urging passage of the law to House members. The bill passed the House in October 1977 with all three Arkansas Democrats joining the majority. The real test, however, came in the Senate, where 60 votes were needed to end a filibuster. Business groups waged the biggest lobbying campaign against a legislative proposal in the country’s history. Bill supporters wrote letters, made phone calls, and visited senators.

The roles played by Sen. Dale Bumpers and Gov. David Pryor proved critical. Pryor appointed Kaneaster Hodges Jr. as senator in December 1977 to replace the deceased John McClellan. Ineligible to run for the seat in 1978, Hodges had been a legislative secretary to Pryor. He followed Pryor’s lead and voted against cloture, or ending the filibuster. Bumpers had a liberal record and a history of voting for cloture. Although expressing mixed feelings on the legislation, Bumpers led bill supporters to believe that he would vote for cloture. Electoral politics intervened and led Bumpers to change his mind.

In the Democratic primary for the open Senate seat, Pryor defeated Rep. Jim Guy Tucker, who had voted for the Labor Law Reform bill, by attacking him for voting with Northern liberals. “Bumpers took it as a signal that the state was opposed to labor law reform,” Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s domestic policy advisor, remembered. Fifty-eight votes were cast for cloture. Russell Long had promised that his would be the 60th vote if the Carter administration could get 59 votes. Bumpers’ defection was decisive.

When the 1980 election put Ronald Reagan in the White House and the Republicans in control of the Senate, labor troubles mounted. Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers and anti-labor appointments to the NLRB set the tone for labor relations in the 1980s. Many private-sector employers adopted the tactic of permanently replacing striking workers. The number of strikes declined and the proportion of the work force in unions dropped by 20 percent between 1978 and 1992.

In 1990 the AFL-CIO launched a drive for legislation to outlaw the permanent replacement tactic. National publicity over firings at Eastern Airlines and Greyhound led to public sympathy for the workers and opposition to the tactic. In Arkansas, the Paperworkers’ Melba Fiser galvanized a grass-roots campaign of rallies, letters, and petitions. The Arkansas Religious Committee for Workplace Fairness emphasized the immorality of firing workers exercising their legal right to strike, lobbied, held press conferences, and spoke with their congregations. The Arkansas Women for Workplace Fairness, the Arkansas Black Leadership Committee for Workplace Fairness, and the Arkansas Seniors Organized for Progress all spoke for the legislation, which passed the House in 1991.

As attention moved to the Senate, Pryor’s 1991 heart attack led workplace fairness partisans to focus their campaign on Bumpers. Students in the Future Voters of America Club in Newport poured their hearts out to him. Blair Rodgers implored: “I have known and called you Uncle Dale, all my life. … You have been my mentor since I was old enough to say the word Democrat. … If we allow this loophole to continue to grow, soon the very foundation of the country, the working people, will fall through.”

Carla Moore appealed to the senator as the daughter of parents who were permanently replaced when they went on strike.

“Today, my father earns $4.75 an hour. My mom cleans houses. We live with my grandparents in a three-bedroom house. My parents do not sleep together. My mother shares a room with me. My father and brother share the other room.”

Still proud of her parents, Carla quoted her father: “You can’t destroy us, we are indestructible. We will keep coming until you make way for us. We will keep talking until you hear us. We will keep fighting until we win.”

The campaign, Bumpers recalled, “was very intense. It wasn’t just here [in Arkansas]. Lord, I’m telling you, they were walking through the door in Washington. Every time I looked up there was a labor group coming in.”

Pryor’s office told Fiser on the day before the vote, “If he goes the way that we’re getting the overwhelming word from home, then he’ll be with you.” Fiser was especially optimistic about Bumpers’ vote but in the end both senators voted against cloture. The final vote was 57-42 in June 1992.

Bill Clinton’s election to the presidency gave unions hope. His appointments to the NLRB were a big improvement but there was no progress on fixing the inadequate labor law system. Clinton had endorsed the Workplace Fairness bill, but he didn’t put pressure on Bumpers and Pryor when the cloture vote came up during the campaign nor did he make the bill a priority as president. Although the House adopted the bill in June 1993, the delayed Senate vote in July 1994 was seven votes short, with Bumpers and Pryor once again opposing cloture and Clinton doing little to promote the legislation.

George W. Bush’s accession to the presidency brought anti-labor NLRB appointments and other setbacks for unions. By 2005 union membership had fallen to 12.5 percent of workers nationally and 4.8 percent in Arkansas.

Today, however, unions have reason for optimism. The Democrats’ victory in the 2006 election and the success of the campaign to increase the minimum wage are positive signs.

EFCA would provide for NLRB certification of a union when a majority of workers sign authorization cards, increased penalties for employers committing unfair labor practices, and arbitration if labor and management fail to agree on a first contract. The EFCA would move labor law back toward the Wagner Act principles of government support for workers’ freedom of self-organization and collective bargaining.

EFCA passed the House in March. There are 47 Senate sponsors. Sens. Lincoln and Pryor were co-sponsors of the EFCA in the last Congress and Pryor has already said he’d vote for this version. Lincoln remains undecided.

Although Bush would almost certainly veto it, a pro-EFCA vote by the Senate would be an important step toward eventual passage. The elder Bush vetoed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1991 and again in 1992. Clinton made it his first priority when he assumed the presidency and signed it into law 16 days after becoming president. If the Democrats win the White House in 2008, it is likely that EFCA would be high on their priority list in 2009, especially if the Senate votes for it this year. The Arkansas Democratic Party convention endorsed EFCA. Will Sens. Lincoln and Pryor follow that lead?

Martin Halpern is a professor of history at Henderson State University.


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