Small Step, Big Advance on Labor Law Reform

Sunday’s announcement by Costco, Starbucks, and Whole Foods that they are supporting an alternative to the Employee Free Choice Act is a small step that could lead to a big advance for labor law reform. The proposal from the three companies does not ensure that workers will be able to exercise their rights to join a union and is not in any sense a real “compromise,” but it is still good news.

The six elements that the companies lay out for a “level playing field for union elections” are a big deal because they tacitly acknowledge that the current union election process allows employers to prevent workers from freely deciding whether or not to join a union and thus needs to be reformed—something too few businesses have been willing to acknowledge.

And perhaps most importantly, the announcement indicates that at least some of the Employee Free Choice Act’s opponents sense that the bill is gaining traction and mere opposition will not be effective. These big name retailers’ concession that the process for establishing unions needs reform also highlights how unrealistic the hardcore opposition to labor law reform really is. The announcement could even make some hesitant elected officials more comfortable with voting for true labor law reform.

The proposal from Costco, Starbucks, and Whole Foods fails to address key problems with the current union election system and should not be enacted into law.  It eliminates essential aspects of the Employee Free Choice Act, such as the bill’s arbitration provision, which prevents companies from endlessly delaying negotiations and has been rightly slammed as “written by CEOs for CEOs” by the bill’s authors Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA). But at least it includes several reasonable elements, including equal access to employees and stricter penalties for serious violations such as firing workers who want to join a union. And perhaps it should not be a surprise—given that the companies do not always have the best record of dealing with their workers—that the short descriptions of the elements suggest that even the most promising ones would not quite live up to their billing.

Still, the effort by Costco, Starbucks, and Whole Foods is a good sign for labor law reform.

Extreme antiunion companies and their front groups have for too long led a hardline opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act that has been treated with respect in the press. A few companies have championed the bill, but too many companies—especially large ones—have remained on the sidelines, giving cover for the extreme opponents. Public statements by major retailers like Costco, Starbucks, and Whole Foods help show just how radical the opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act are.

“There can be no compromise whatsoever on the card-check bill,” Vice President of the antiunion National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation Stefan H. Gleason, argues. Rhonda Bentz of the anti-card-check Coalition for a Democratic Workplace has similarly said that the plan “is a nonstarter.” The line from these groups is that there can be no discussions—you are either with us or you are against us.

The Chamber of Commerce, for its part, is trying to bury its head in the sand and act like nothing happened over the weekend. “These companies,” Michael Eastman, a labor law policy specialist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argues, “are not representative of any true division in the business community.” But of course there are differing perspectives among the business community—something that Sunday’s announcement makes even harder to deny.

Differing perspectives engaged in debate is good for democracy and promising for the passage of any bill, especially one such as the Employee Free Choice Act that has opponents trying to prevent any sort of discussion of reform.

More on unions and the Employee Free Choice Act from the American Worker Project:

The Employee Free Choice Act 101

Interactive Map: Unions Are Good for Workers and the Economy in Every State

Fact Sheets: Unions Are Good for the American Economy