Retail Labor Union Cheers Obama Victory

Barack Obama's victory in the presidential election was also a triumph for the nation's largest supermarket union, which sees the event as a mandate to reform labor law and organize non-union retailers. The president-elect has said he would support passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would reduce hindrances to organizing unions by replacing the current process of a secret

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's victory in the presidential election was also a triumph for the nation's largest supermarket union, which sees the event as a mandate to reform labor law and organize non-union retailers.

The president-elect has said he would support passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would reduce hindrances to organizing unions by replacing the current process of a secret ballot with a process of signed cards or a petition. Patrick O'Neill, executive vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said the bill — which gained approval by the U.S. House of Representatives last year but died behind a Senate filibuster — would “level the playing field — not just between labor and management but between competitors in the industry.”

Speaking in a conference call arranged by retail analysts at Citibank earlier this month, O'Neill predicted that the UFCW could successfully organize some non-union retailers within six months of an Obama presidency. Deborah Weinswig, an analyst at Citibank, said the legislation could come to pass within Obama's first 100 days in the White House.

Current labor law requires that the National Labor Relations Board conduct a secret ballot for a bargaining unit after a union files a petition, with card checks — cards signed by workers signifying their interest in unionizing — currently used primarily to grant that petition. The EFCA would grant certification based solely on a majority of signed cards, a process labor said would reduce “union busting” by management. The bill would also expedite the process of contracts by establishing a 120-day period for parties to reach an agreement following certification. Under current law, unions can lose bargaining rights if contracts are not reached within a year. Finally, the act would enforce stronger penalties for violations of labor law.

The potential of the EFCA becoming reality has raised concerns among businesses, and sparked creation of a nonprofit group, the Employee Freedom Action Committee, which called EFCA an “undemocratic power grab” and a “forced unionization system” on its website. Weinswig in a written report contended that passage of EFCA “could have significant negative impact” on retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target, leading to higher labor costs, and subsequent margin and pricing pressure.

O'Neill argued, however, that retailers would ultimately benefit from more union activity by improving the spending capabilities of their workers, reducing turnover and improving worker productivity. He said the UFCW would likely look first at organizing non-union operators that share markets with union shops.

“Our mission is to represent the members we already have and advance their standard of living,” O'Neill said. “One of the ways to do that is to go out and organize the other companies in the industry.”

O'Neill said current labor law — based on legislation dating back to 1935 — has resulted in companies in industries like food retailing competing “in a race to the bottom” on labor costs. Worker wages and benefits, he added, have not kept pace with productivity gains.

The UFCW — which endorsed Obama for president before he'd won his party's nomination — hailed last week's election for “renewing hope for the middle class,” and said that union members turning out in record numbers in states like Colorado and Virginia helped tilt the balance in those states.