Friday, Feb. 6, 2009 | 2 a.m.
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- Card check battle takes center stage at Capitol (1-31-2009)
- Big union reels as card-check fight looms (1-29-2009)
- Reid: Vote on card check bill, a labor priority, likely in summer (1-27-2009)
- Leaders of Culinary parent union embroiled in nasty lawsuit (1-27-2009)
- Card check issue stalls panel’s vote on nominee (1-23-2009)
- Left relieved by Obama’s words on card check (1-17-2009)
- Mum about card check, a key issue for labor (1-10-2009)
The conference room was packed, and the men at the podium told the crowd that, whether they realized it or not, they were in the midst of World War III.
The National Grocers Association had gathered at Paris Las Vegas for its annual convention. About 100 independent grocery retailers and wholesalers filled the cramped Chablis Room on Thursday to learn about federal legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize.
The presentation was titled “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble!!!”
Mark Trapp, a management labor lawyer, got right to it with a one-two punch. “How many of you run a unionized business?” he said to the group. A few sheepishly raised their hands. And then: “How many of you want to run a unionized business?” No one.
Trapp warned the grocers that should the Employee Free Choice Act win congressional passage, they would be the ones without a choice. Unions, he said, are “bad for business,” and business had better start fighting back.
The remarks reflect the general panic felt by business as labor unions press for their biggest initiative since the Great Depression. Both sides have launched multimillion-dollar ad campaigns and are lobbying lawmakers aggressively.
The card-check bill would allow unions to circumvent a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. Instead, unions would need only to collect signed cards from a majority of employees to organize. Business owners counter that secret-ballot elections protect the balance of power in the workplace.
With the election of President Barack Obama and a Democratically controlled Congress, business fears a sharp reversal of the enterprise-friendly labor policies of the past eight years. Obama himself sent a strong message last week when he invited labor leaders to the White House for the signing of three executive orders reversing measures he said were anti-union.
Vice President Joe Biden summed up the change in tone: “Welcome back to the White House.”
Although the card-check bill passed overwhelmingly in the House last year, it went down in the Senate in a near party-line vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said the Senate is likely to consider it this summer. Democrats, who now number 58 in that chamber, need two Republicans to cross over to bring it to a vote. Obama pledged during the campaign to sign the legislation if it made it to his desk.
And so there was a sense of urgency Thursday at the grocers’ convention.
“We’re in a tight spot,” Trapp told the businessmen. “This thing is moving down the tracks but it’s not too late to stop it.”
Trapp told the grocers that union density nationwide had shrunk from its pinnacle of 32 percent in 1955 to its current nadir of 12 percent because federal labor laws and the federal labor board had rendered unions “redundant” — an explanation sharply disputed by labor.
When there are elections, Trapp said, unions prevail two-thirds of the time, suggesting that labor has little reason to complain.
But Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor expert at Cornell University, said that although labor’s win rate has increased, the number of elections has dropped by half over the past eight years — in part because workers involved in organizing drives are fired 25 percent of the time.
The most objectionable part of the bill, as identified by Trapp, is mandatory arbitration if the sides cannot agree on a contract in 120 days. “This turns your business over to someone who may not know about your market, your customers or anything else,” he said. “They are taking your business and imposing their will.”
Again, labor advocates point to Bronfenbrenner’s data, which show that a third of unions that win elections fail to achieve a first contract.
In the end, Trapp instructed grocers to improve labor relations in the workplace and to communicate with members of Congress, because “this thing is ready-made to come after you guys.” Unions, he said, will pick the “low-hanging fruit.”