From The Washington Post:
As business and labor gird for battle over legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize, the debate could be transformed by a “third way” proposed by three companies that like to project a progressive image: Costco, Starbucks and Whole Foods.
Like other businesses, the three companies are opposed to two of the Employee Free Choice Act’s components — a provision that would allow workers to form a union if a majority sign pro-union cards, without having to hold a secret-ballot election, and one that would impose binding arbitration when employers and unions fail to reach a contract after 120 days.
But the companies’ chief executive officers say they also recognize that just opposing the legislation, commonly called “card check,” is not enough because of the widespread perception in Democrat-dominated Washington that there is not a level playing field between labor and business. So the CEOs have come up with ideas they hope will form the basis of new legislation.
Their proposal would maintain management’s right to demand a secret-ballot election and would leave out binding arbitration. The proposal would keep the third main element of card check — toughening the penalties for companies that retaliate against workers before union elections or refuse to engage in collective bargaining. But it would also toughen penalties for union violations, and it would make it easier for businesses to call elections to try to decertify a union.
To address labor’s concern that businesses intimidate workers before elections, it would set a fixed period in which an election must be held, limiting the delays that give employers time to exert pressure.
“We wanted to see what we can do to come up with a compromise position that is going to address the concerns of labor and also protect the sanctity of the collective bargaining process and secret ballot,” said Costco Wholesale chief executive James D. Sinegal.
Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz cast the proposal in more defensive terms. “The way the wind is blowing, we’re heading toward a bill that is not the right approach,” he said.
The Employee Free Choice Act has majority support in both chambers, but there are signs it may have trouble getting a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate, where several centrist Democrats who previously supported it are expressing reservations.
The business lobby has been warning against any moves to tweak card check just enough to give centrists cover to support it. And word that a compromise is circulating from three “progressive” companies prompted business groups to warn yesterday against premature compromise.
But it is possible that the proposal will generate even greater opposition among unions and their supporters in Congress.
Labor unions, though, are adamant that workers be able to choose to organize via card check so they can avoid employer intimidation before elections. They say binding arbitration is needed because so many companies refuse to bargain — nearly half of new unions never even get a contract.
The three CEOs are at odds with those planks. Whole Foods Market chief executive John Mackey said that binding arbitration is “not the way we normally do things in the United States” and that allowing workers to organize without a secret ballot “violates a bedrock principle of American democracy.”
And the CEOs also do not share the labor movement’s underlying belief that the decline of organized labor has contributed to income inequality and the economy’s current imbalance. “That so few companies are unionized is not for a lack of trying but because [unions] are losing elections — workers aren’t choosing to have labor representation,” Mackey said. “I don’t feel things are worse off for labor today.”
Of the three companies, only Costco has a substantial minority of employees that are unionized — about a fifth of its hourly employees belong to the Teamsters, with whom it has good relations. Starbucks and Whole Foods have resisted most unionizing efforts.
The chief sponsors of the Employee Free Choice Act, Representative George Miller of California and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, both Democrats, said in an e-mailed statement that the company-backed alternative is “unacceptable” and “written by CEOs, for CEOs.”
Bill Samuel, legislative director for the AFL-CIO, said “a proposal coming from corporations, some of whom have their own history of violating workers’ rights, is simply not an alternative.”
Business groups trying to defeat the Employee Free Choice Group rejected the alternative approach as well.
“No proposal that makes it easier for union bosses (or employers) to impose forced unionism on workers is acceptable,” said Doug Stafford, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, in a statement.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Home Depot Inc. and Burger King Holdings Inc. are among companies that oppose the card-check bill, as does billionaire investor Warren Buffett, an Obama supporter and adviser. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said it will spend more than $20 million to defeat the measure.
Several Democratic senators — including Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor from Wal-Mart’s home state of Arkansas, and Mark Warner of Virginia — have said they aren’t sure they will support the current version of the card-check measure.