Companies looking at options on labor bill

WASHINGTON — Starbucks Corp. and other companies are exploring alternatives to a bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize, but the idea of any compromise drew the wrath of business groups lobbying furiously to defeat the measure.

Officials at the coffee giant would not discuss exactly what alternatives to the Employee Free Choice Act the companies are considering, but confirmed late Friday that the company is "engaged in dialogue" on the topic.

"We have had conversations with like-minded companies and are open to exploring alternative solutions to the legislation as it is currently written," Starbucks spokeswoman Deb Trevino said.

The labor-friendly bill, one of the most vigorously debated in Congress this year, would take away the right of employers to demand secret-ballot elections by workers before unions could be formed. Instead, unions could gain representation if a majority of workers sign cards authorizing it.

Business groups have mobilized like never before to lobby against the bill — also known as card check — with Congress expected to consider the measure later this summer. Word that one of the most recognizable companies in the nation is even thinking about compromise provoked a wave of outrage from opponents of the legislation.

Stefan H. Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, called Starbucks' position "totally unacceptable."

"There can be no compromise whatsoever on the card-check bill," Gleason said. "For any company to cut a deal with big labor is to support passage of card check."

The news prompted Michael Eastman, a labor law policy specialist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to fire off an e-mail to supporters late Friday, assuring them it is not a sign of cracks in the business position.

"It should not be surprising that some very small number of companies, out of the hundreds of thousands concerned with EFCA, may be exploring other options," Eastman said. "However, these companies are not representative of any true division in the business community."

Eastman urged the bill's opponents "to stay on course and on message and not get distracted by talk of alternatives."

The bill passed the House two years ago, but failed to gain 60 votes in the Senate to defeat a GOP filibuster. Labor leaders believe Democratic gains in the last election could give them the votes they need for passage.

While it is not clear what alternatives Starbucks may be considering, Washington labor lawyer Jay Krupin said he has been working with several "service industry" companies — not including Starbucks — to line up support for a possible compromise.

Krupin's compromise plan — known as the 70-50-30 proposal — would allow employees to organize without a secret ballot if 70 percent of workers sign cards. If only 50 percent sign cards, there would be a quick election within 15 days instead of the usual minimum of 42 days. If just 30 percent of employees sign cards, union officials would be allowed on the company property to garner more support.

Rhonda Bentz, of the anti-card-check Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, said that or any other plan doesn't represent the will of business community which opposes any compromise on card check.

"This is a non-starter," Bentz said. "This is worse for workers because even more will be exposed to union intimidation."

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