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
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. …