Sounding Board: Unfriendly labor relations

With their ranks depleted, hungry unions are increasingly targeting retailers.

By Len Lewis

It is a funny thing about fear. It just feeds on itself and keeps getting bigger. In the end there is just more of it—along with heaping portions of frustration, anger and, finally, retribution.

Unfortunately, this is the main course for retailers who are facing increasingly aggressive union activity and the unnerving prospect of lockouts, strikes and picket lines. This is to be expected since unions, facing their lowest membership in decades, are literally fighting for their lives. Everyone knows that an animal is most dangerous when it is cornered.

Personally, I am neither pro- nor anti-union. Being a journalist, I have friends on both sides of the fence and find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to straddle it. Unions have played a key role in this country’s economic and ethical growth and in protecting people from the abuses of unscrupulous employers and middlemen. I just do nOt think that retailers are among them and employees have grown tired of subsidizing the lifestyles of union officials, supporting outmoded dogma and getting little in return.

This may be the reason that union representation in the entire private sector is down to about 7% and just 4.5% among retail workers. There are other factors at play. But if Target, Walmart, Macy’s and others were such monsters you would think organized labor would have more support.

The question I have been asking lately is whether the unions—principally the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union—are increasingly combative. Yes and no, sources say. Retail is simply an attractive target. It is where a lot of the jobs are these days and after efforts to pass the Free Choice Act (Card Check) failed, unions are hungrier than ever.

In the past, some in management felt that high turnover, especially among part-timers, was enough to shield them from unions. This is an attitude that does not just make you a target but a sitting duck. Even if you are lucky enough to have a loyal workforce that is aligned with management, high turnover means new people and new opportunities for the unions.

However, the real battle between labor and management is taking place in Washington at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Department of Labor (DOL) where some proposed regulatory changes virtually have employers bound and gagged before union elections.

One proposal, which oddly enough, is part of a specialty health care case, would enable unions to organize very small bargaining units. Under this, one small store or even a few employees within a store could be considered a bargaining unit under NLRB statutes.

Another proposal, which one labor attorney called “Card Check 2.0,” is a rule designed to facilitate “quick snap” elections. Basically, it means that the unions, which may have been planning a campaign for a year, can show up with some signed cards demanding an election. But employers, who have been barred from saying anything during the time that the union was building support, will have very limited time to respond.

However, one real sleeper initiative that could be even more damaging than quickie elections, are new rules for third-party persuaders—outside attorneys or consultants hired to map out strategies for management and convince employees not to vote for unions.

Their activities have been strictly regulated since 1959 under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act and they had to report any “direct persuasion” such as talking to employees or handing out materials. Now, the DOL is calling for reporting of so-called “indirect persuasion.” This means that every time a consultant/attorney meets with management to map out a strategy it has to be reported to the DOL. Whatever happened to attorney-client privilege?

Moreover, the rule will make it mandatory for persuaders to report all employment-related work they do for any client and how much they were paid by each. Employers will also have to file reports disclosing how much they paid. I don’t see anyone asking the unions to report how much they spend on organizing activities.

It all comes down to leveling the playing field for everyone, justice for all and due process. Or, have I been watching too many reruns of Law & Order?

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Communications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at or at

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