Labor looks for help in Arkansas 

Senators could break precedent with pro-union votes.

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.



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