- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 21, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Three major retailers on Saturday laid out broad details of an alternative proposal they hope will fend off a deadlock over a hotly contested bill making it easier for workers to unionize.

Starbucks Corp., Whole Foods Market Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. are opposed to portions of the labor-friendly Employee Free Choice Act, which would take away the right of employers to demand secret-ballot elections by workers before unions could be formed. Under the legislation, unions could gain representation if a majority of workers sign cards authorizing it.

Still, the companies say they recognize that simply opposing the bill might prove futile given a union-friendly environment in Washington in which Democrats control Congress. So the companies on Saturday announced an ad hoc committee aimed at pushing through alternatives. Their proposals will seek to maintain management’s right to demand a secret ballot election and would leave out binding arbitration.

The three retailers want to toughen penalties for companies that retaliate against workers before union elections, while at the same time stiffen penalties for union violations.

“We believe in and trust our employees, which is neither anti-union nor pro-status quo,” said James Sinegal of Costco. He said the group’s proposals “will ensure a fair opportunity for workers to make an informed choice, with a secret ballot, whether they want a union or whether they wish to retain non-union status.”

It was unclear whether the broad principles of the alternative plan will gain traction on an issue where both labor and business have drawn firm lines.

Business groups have mobilized like never before to lobby against the Employee Free Choice Act _ also known as card check _ with Congress expected to consider the measure later this summer. Word that three of the most recognizable companies in the nation were even thinking about compromise provoked a wave of outrage from the business community, which has been maintaining a position of zero compromise.

“Small business remains steadfastly opposed to compromising on card check legislation,” Brad Close, a vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business said Saturday. “It’s not surprising that a couple of companies are panicking, but the result is that they are throwing the little guys under the bus.”

Likewise, because the alternative proposal dramatically alters legislation that unions so heavily favor, labor groups are not likely to be enthusiastic.

Bill Samuel, government affairs director of the AFL-CIO, said the proposal “falls short.” He said of most concern are the provisions that would bar workers from forming unions by simply signing cards. Also troubling is the provision leaving out binding arbitration, because it would “allow companies to continue to stall and delay and refuse to negotiate a contract in good faith,” Samuel said.

The “card-check” bill passed the House two years ago, but failed to gain 60 votes in the Senate to defeat a GOP filibuster. Labor leaders believe Democratic gains in the last election could give them the votes they need for passage.

One wild card is President Barack Obama, who generally supports the legislation. Helping Starbucks, Whole Foods and Costco in their efforts is attorney Lanny Davis, a longtime Democratic operative. His involvement prompted some in the business community to speculate that the White House may be behind this plan. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment.

Davis said he had discussed the three major retailers’ broad principles with the staffs of almost two dozen Democratic and Republican senators. He said most were “positive about our third-way approach.”

“I’m proud to call myself a pro-labor liberal Democrat who believes that reforms are needed to provide a level playing field for both labor and management, but not at the expense of a guaranteed option for a secret ballot by both workers and management and certainly not at the expense of preserving the historic process of private, voluntary collective bargaining,” Davis said.


Associated Press writer Sam Hananel contributed to this report.

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