Firms Join Effort Seeking Alternative to Labor Bill

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 21, 2009

Three high-profile companies are pushing a proposal on Capitol Hill that seeks to level the playing field between unions and employers while not going as far as pro-labor legislation that is fiercely opposed by most businesses.

Costco, Whole Foods and Starbucks -- which have worked to burnish reputations as progressive employers -- are working together to advance alternative legislation to reform labor relations, said sources close to the effort, who declined to be identified because the companies have yet to formally announce the push.

Libba Letton, a Whole Foods spokeswoman, confirmed that an effort is underway. "I can't confirm any specific affiliations right now, but I can say that we've been having conversations with other companies who have the same outlook that we do, and we've talked about finding fair alternatives," she said.

A Starbucks spokesman said, "We have had conversations with like-minded companies and are open to exploring alternative solutions to the legislation as it is currently written." Costco, the only one of the three companies to have a sizable minority of employees represented by unions, declined to comment.

The push for new legislation has the potential to reshape what has been looming as a highly polarized and high-stakes clash between employers and organized labor over the Employee Free Choice Act. That bill, reintroduced last week, would make it possible for workers to organize a union by getting a majority to sign pro-union cards, thus giving the bill its nickname, "card-check"; as the law now stands, employers can insist on a secret-ballot election. The bill also would increase penalties for employer violations of labor rules, and would require binding arbitration by government-appointed mediators in cases where employers and unions failed to reach a contract three months after a union was formed.

The alternative legislation backed by the companies would tighten some organizing rules in favor of workers while keeping the secret ballot and leaving out mandatory arbitration.

Unions say the card-check legislation is needed because employers retaliate against workers in organizing efforts, making elections less than democratic, and because companies can go years without agreeing to contracts. (Nearly half of new unions never secure a first contract.) It is the pro-management tilt in the current laws, unions say, that explains why only 7.5 percent of private-sector workers belong to unions, down from 36 percent in the 1950s, a decline that unions say has helped put the economy out of balance.

Employers say that allowing workers to organize without a secret ballot would be undemocratic and expose workers to union intimidation. They say binding arbitration would be an intolerable intervention in their businesses.

The labor movement has high hopes for the Employee Free Choice Act after spending hundreds of millions of dollars to help elect a strong Democratic majority and President Obama, a past co-sponsor of the bill. But the bill's supporters will need to get 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster, and several centrist Democrats who backed the bill in the past are expressing reservations about it.

The Chamber of Commerce and other business groups are spending heavily to counter the unions' effort, and the rhetoric is already very heated. Any move by big companies to chart a middle course will likely draw support from some centrist Democrats and Republicans who see a need to reform the status quo but are wary of card-check and arbitration.

Less clear is whether such an alternative proposal could get enough support from the labor movement to pass muster with pro-labor Democrats and Obama, who said shortly before his inauguration that he was open to alternative pro-labor proposals. But union officials, while acknowledging that the bill might require tweaks to win passage, have been adamant about the need for retaining its fundamental components.

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