- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

Three major retail companies with a reputation for generous dealings with their employees and very little union involvement are floating compromise legislation that would make it easier for organized labor to unionize but preserve a workers’ ability to decide using a secret ballot vote.

Starbucks, Whole Foods Market and Costco have been lobbying on Capitol Hill — especially among Democrats who tend to support organized labor — for a plan that they say would bridge the wide gap between unions and management over how union elections should be held.

Labor unions’ top legislative priority this year is to enact a bill, supported by President Obama, that would allow them to unionize companies whenever a majority of workers sign cards that ask for union representation.

Current law makes union certification much more cumbersome and business groups are lobbying furiously to prevent the change, which they have dubbed “card check.”

The three companies’ compromise plan was cobbled together, insiders say, because none of them want their companies to be broadly unionized and also oppose the union’s card check bill.

Costco is the only one of the three companies to have any major union involvement — it deals with the Teamsters for its transportation needs.

At the same time, the three companies fear that the Democratic-controlled Congress is well on its way to giving the unions what they want and hope to derail the card check bill.

Their compromise would reject the card check method of voting and keep secret-ballot voting as it is now practiced in most instances. The compromise would also eliminate the union-backed provision that would force the settlement of certification disputes through mandatory arbitration.

To assuage the unions, the plan would for the first time permit union organizers to press their cases at work sites and would also prevent long delays before a union certification vote must be held.

A few moderate senators have expressed early support for the plan and insiders are hopeful that Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and a key lawmaker on labor-relations issues, will also speak favorably about it.

Mr. Specter could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Two of the chief executives also are major donors to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz has donated $27,800 to Democratic campaigns since 2004. In the same period Costco CEO Jim Sinegal has given $314,000 to Democrats, Democratic causes and Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Randel Johnson, vice president of labor issues for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which has opposed card check legislation, said: “There are hundreds of thousands of employers who are concerned about the bill and the fact three employers came up with an alternative isn’t all that surprising, although it does mix up the debate a bit.”

Brad Close, vice president of federal policy the National Federation of Independent Business, also was skeptical of the three companies’ motives, saying this plan could be a way for large corporations to eliminate their competition in the market.

“Starbucks and Whole Foods are trying to crush the other businesses by making it easier for workers to organize them. This gives them a competitive advantage, he said. In addition, Wal-Mart is one of Costco’s biggest competitors and has been adamantly against the “card-check” bill.

Several pro-labor pieces of legislation have been signed into law under the new administration, but card check has been delayed. It remains unclear whether it can muster the 60 votes needed for contentious bills to pass the Senate, though it would likely pass in the heavily Democratic House if tested there, union lobbyists say.

Other compromises are also being floated. Service industries, for example, are offering the so-called 70-50-30 proposal.

It would allow employees to organize without a secret ballot if 70 percent of workers sign pro-union cards. If only 50 percent sign cards, a quick election within 15 days would be held instead of the usual minimum of 42 days. If just 30 percent of employees sign cards, that would be enough to allow union officials on company property to garner more support.

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