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Employee Free Choice Act Card-Checked Companies Won't Talk

July 7, 2009
Related Topics: Labor Relations, Workforce Planning, Featured Article
In the cacophony of the debate on the Employee Free Choice Act, one particular voice that might quell fears about the use of card check over secret-ballot elections has been silent.

None of the major companies that currently use card check has stepped up to support the bill.

American Rights at Work, an Employee Free Choice Act advocacy group, says that more than 500,000 workers have joined unions through majority sign-up—another term for card check—since 2003. On its Web site, the organization praises companies that use the process for listening to their workers and treating them with respect. Those cited include AT&T, Verizon and Kaiser Permanente.

All three companies refused to comment on the Employee Free Choice Act and their labor relations. Another employer, Harley-Davidson, did not respond.

“Given the pending status of the Employee Free Choice Act legislation, we would like to decline participation in the interview,” wrote Kaiser spokeswoman Danielle Cass in an e-mail.

Kaiser’s former senior vice president for HR, Laurence “Lon” O’Neil, is highlighted on the American Rights at Work Web site as proponent of “giving workers a free and fair chance to form a union.”

On the site, O’Neil is quoted as saying that “it’s the right thing to do for our employees, our health plan members and also our business.”

But now that O’Neil is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, he apparently is unwilling to talk about his approach to unionization at Kaiser. SHRM did not make O’Neil available for an interview despite multiple requests over several weeks in May and June.

O’Neil may be wary of talking about card-check elections because SHRM, like most of the rest of the business community, is an avid opponent of the legislation.

One company touted by American Rights at Work, UPS, did comment about the legislation—in order to bash it.

The most recent use of card check at UPS was for a union election in 2005, in a unit that is now called UPS Freight. The company is not currently using the process. American Rights at Work says that 11,000 UPS employees have joined a union through card check.

A UPS spokesman said that the company approved card check because it fit the circumstance.

“We used it in a manner that was agreed upon between UPS and the unions with which it was negotiating at the time,” said Malcolm Berkley, public relations manager for UPS in Washington.

He declined to say why UPS agreed to card check because the company does not release union bargaining details.

But Berkley was clear in explaining that UPS does not want card check foisted upon all companies through the Employee Free Choice Act.

“We’re against EFCA,” Berkley said. “It’s important for companies to be able to choose the tool that works best for them rather than having it mandated.”

Most of the time, an employer who uses card check is already unionized to some extent, according to experts.

But a company doesn’t willingly agree to a card-check election because “it’s almost tantamount to unionization,” said Arnold Perl, a partner at Ford & Harrison in Memphis.

Instead, the company’s hand is forced because of geographic, industry or customer leverage that a union can exert, Perl said. A geography example can be found in Las Vegas. Organized labor got a couple major hotels to use card check and many others followed.

Perl points to the automotive industry as an instance of customer influence. General Motors encourages suppliers to develop relationships with the United Auto Workers.

“Companies are motivated to do card check by union pressure,” Perl said.

Advocates of the Employee Free Choice Act assert that big companies that use card check are staying out of the debate because of bullying by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is leading the charge against the bill.

“My suspicion is that the Chamber of Commerce is making it tough on them,” Sen. Tom Harkin said at a Capitol Hill event in May.

Glenn Spencer, executive director of the Workforce Freedom Initiative at the chamber, denied the allegation, which is repeated by many union groups.

“Trade associations aren’t in the business of telling their members what to do,” Spencer said. “That only works in organized labor. I don’t know what the threat is that we would hold over our membership.”

Regardless of the cause, the Employee Free Choice Act is not getting support from any major company that could assuage worries about the impact of card-check elections. It’s one of the reasons why the idea may be fading.

“Certain words have gotten toxic, like card check, so we don’t use those words anymore,” Harkin said.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

Recent Articles by Mark Schoeff Jr.

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