Could a New Labor Law in Oklahoma Force Business Doors Open to Unions?

Article excerpt

As union supporters once again put the Employee Free Choice Act before Congress, the Tulsa-based Labor Relations Institute offered a $10,000 prize to the first federal arbitrator to prove he or she had indeed settled a first contract between a union and private employer in less than 90 days.

Twenty days later, LRI Chief Executive Don Wilson said no one had met the challenge.

That plays a bit like theatrical flare, suggested University of Tulsa labor law professor James C. Thomas, since up to this point, those mediators primarily handled union disputes with municipalities and other government bodies - not private employers.

But that's a key point to Wilson, whose 29-year-old firm has seen its products and services used in more than 10,000 union elections.

LRI's still-unclaimed reward refers to a key binding arbitration provision in the proposed law. That act, according to Wilson and some other theorists, could force businesses to not only allow employees to unionize, but take owners and management out of the process of forming that labor environment.

State union leaders scoffed at those fears, especially since Oklahoma operates under the 2001 Right to Work law, which gives employees the right to opt out of paying union dues.

"We don't go to employers looking to organize," said Jimmy C. Curry, president, secretary and treasurer with the Oklahoma State AFL-CIO. "It's the employees that come to us. When they've been mistreated or something's been done wrong, they come to us. We don't come to them."

That 90-day binding arbitration timeline has been overshadowed by a much-more debated element of the phoenix-like bill, the card check provision that would allow unions to set up shop without a formal employee vote if they can get 50 percent of workers, plus one, to sign a card backing formation of a union.

Those two elements, with increased employer penalties, comprise the main sections of the Employee Free Choice Act, proposed legislation that was officially re-filed for congressional scrutiny this month. While Don Wilson foresees the bill undergoing some revision through the legislative process, he fears the act will become law sometime this year, since union-favoring Democrats control both Congress and the White House.

Compromise talk by Starbucks, Costco and other companies mirror that admission, said Wilson, who founded LRI in 1980.

While LRI opposes all three sections of the Free Choice bill, Wilson sees binding arbitration as the most dangerous element. To some business advocates, it represents a fundamental challenge.

"The freedom and security of Oklahoma's work force will be negatively impacted if this bad piece of legislation becomes law," said Richard P. Rush, president and CEO of The State Chamber of Oklahoma.

Curry said he expects such talk from pro-business advocates - which is how he sees LRI. Thomas agreed.

"I think if you're objective, you have to examine who the messenger is," said Thomas, who has taught labor law at the TU College of Law for 40 years.

"What happens with the secret ballot, which the chamber of commerce suddenly is embracing, is these employers spend all kinds of money with public relations firms to basically totally destroy the image of unionism and unions," said Thomas.

Union organizers have a difficult time countering this because "at that stage they have very little money," he said. "They're operating on a shoestring."

"Basically the Free Choice Act takes away from the employer this ability to use PR tactics to destroy the union's ability to unionize," said Thomas.

While Wilson could recall similar instances of peer pressure by union sympathizers and organizers, he put greater concern and emphasis on how the law would change the process establishing any new union. …