- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Supporters of a compromise proposal on a bill that makes it easier to form unions said Sunday they are not deterred by the frosty reception the plan has received from labor and business groups.

Three prominent retailers _ Starbucks Corp., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Whole Foods Corp. _ broke with other business leaders over the weekend to offer a “third way,” which they hope can bridge the bitter divide over the Employee Free Choice Act.

“Our role is to trigger a conversation between business and labor to try to find common ground on the principle of a level playing field,” the companies’ attorney Lanny Davis told reporters in a conference call.

Most business groups quickly condemned the proposal as a nonstarter, while labor officials said it falls short of what unions want.

“No proposal that makes it easier for employers and union bosses to impose forced unionism on workers is acceptable,” said Doug Stafford, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, which opposes the bill.

And Democratic leaders denounced the new plan on Sunday as “unacceptable.”

“It is nothing more than a classic Washington lobbying campaign intended to confuse the issues and disguise the real agenda of maintaining the status quo,” said a joint statement from Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. They are the lead sponsors of the bill, also known as “card check.”

Passage of the bill is the top priority of labor officials who say the system is heavily tilted against union organizers.

The measure backed by unions and most Democrats would allow a majority of employees at a company to organize by signing cards, a change from the current practice that allows employers to require secret ballot elections.

It also would increase penalties on companies that retaliate against workers seeking to organize and call for arbitration if management and the union cannot agree on a first contract.

Starbucks, Costco and Whole Foods would let management keep the right to secret ballot elections and would not include binding arbitration. But the companies’ plan also expands penalties, allows unions access to employees during nonworking hours and mandates a fixed time for elections so companies can’t delay the process.

AFL-CIO legislative director Bill Samuel said the federation could not accept removal of majority sign-up and arbitration provisions.

Davis said about two dozen Senate staffers briefed on the new plan “have welcomed our approach _ some enthusiastically, some moderately, but not a single one said, ‘Don’t do this.’” He blamed much of the initially hostile reaction to a “disinformation campaign” launched by some anti-card-check forces who oppose any compromise.

The House is ready to pass card check, and the proposal is believed to have majority support in the Senate. But an expected GOP filibuster would require 60 votes to move the bill forward in the Senate, a hurdle the bill may not overcome. The compromise targets a handful of moderate Democrats who say they want to see improvements to the bill.

President Barack Obama has said he wants Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, but he also has signaled a willingness to hear out offers of compromise.

Davis, a veteran Democratic political operative, said he has not spoken to anyone at the White House about the new plan. But he speculated that Obama wants to “get away from that old paradigm of polarization and try to look for third ways that bring people together.”

The three companies are known for their progressive outlook and generally positive relations with employees. Costco is the only one of the three that has unionized employees. About 20 percent of its workers are represented by the Teamsters.

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