Tuesday, November 4, 2008

U.S. Organized Labor, Including the UFCW Union, is Feeling Good Tonight About A President Obama and Stronger Democratic Majority in Congress

America's organized labor movement, including the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union which represents about 13 million unionized supermarket workers in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, is celebrating tonight's Presidential victory by Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama, along with celebrating the fact Democrats are picking up numerous new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.

Organized labor, which supported President-elect Obama 100% in this year's election once he received the Democratic Party nomination, played a key role in his Presidential campaign, mobilizing tens of thousands of union members to work telephone banks, conduct door-to-door grass roots organizing efforts and drive voters to the polls, along with donating millions of dollars to Obama's winning campaign for President.

America's labor unions also were key in working with the Democratic Party to help win numerous new seats in the House of Representatives and Senate. Democrats have thus far tonight picked up new seats in many states in what have been traditional Republican states, including defeating a number of once-popular Republican Congress members and Senators. And with votes still coming in from throughout the Western U.S., the Democrats will likely pick up additional seats because the election trend is in their favor this year.

The United Foods & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which as we've been reporting and writing about all year, is in the midst of a campaign to unionize the store-level employees of Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market grocery and fresh foods chain in California, Nevada and Arizona.

The union's Fresh & Easy unionization campaign has been the UFCW's top organizing priority this year. The union also hopes to unionize workers at Wal-Mart stores, Whole Foods Market, Inc., Costco, Trader Joe's and a few other non-union chains now that there will be a Democratic President of the United States and a Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate.

However, during the eight years of the pro-union Clinton Administration in the 1990's, including a number of years when the Democrats held a majority in both houses, the UFCW wasn't able to unionize any of those four chains despite strong efforts to so so.

The UFCW however has made much more rapid efforts in its attempts to organize Tesco Fresh & Easy workers in just a short time; less than a year.

As we reported on September 17 in this story, store employees at the Huntington Beach, California Fresh & Easy market petitioned company officials asking to be recognized as a UFCW union shop, a request Fresh & Easy CEO Tim Mason denied, telling the store workers to hold a vote on unionization as current U.S. labor laws allow.

But UFCW officials tell us tonight they're feeling a new bounce in their collective organizational heels because of Barack Obama's victory and the new House and Senate seats being added to the Democratic majority in Congress.

For example, Patrick O' Neill, the executive vice president of the UFCW union, says new labor rules under an Obama presidency and a Democratic supermajority in Congress could result in additional grocery chains being unionized within six months. O'Neill first made this comment on Friday during a conference call arranged by New York-based bank Citigroup, which we covered.

The new labor rules or more specifically legislation Patrick O’Neill is referring to is the "Employee Free Choice Act" bill, which we reported on and wrote about most recently here.

The "Employee Free Choice Act," which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year and was defeated in the Senate by Republicans by just two or three votes from, is a measure union leaders define as "reducing the hindrances to union certification by replacing the current process of secret ballot elections with a process of signed cards or a petition," according to the UFCW's O'Neill.

This provision of the proposed law is called the "Quick Check Provision." Instead of voting in a secret ballot election like non-union food and grocery store employees do now, the workers would merely be able to check "yes" on a card or petition if they want union affiliation and recognition by employers. If a majority of employees check "yes" rather than "no" on the card, the company would have to recognize the stores(s) as union shops.

President George W. Bush opposes the "Employee Free Choice Act." Therefore, even if it would have passed the Senate last year, he would have vetoed the bill. Losing Republican candidate for President John McCain also publicly said he opposed the legislation in this year's campaign, and voted against it in the Senate last year.

President-elect Barack Obama is for the "Employee Free Choice Act' though. He says he will sign the bill if and when Congress brings it up for a vote and passes it next year.

Additionally, since the legislation already passed the House of Representatives last year, and since the Democrats are gaining numerous additional House seats tonight, the bill should passed the House easily if voted on in 2009.

And although the "Employee Free Choice Act" bill was defeated in the Senate last year, it was only two or three votes short of passage. Thus far tonight Democrats have picked up five Senate seats, which means Republicans have lost five so far. Those five new Democrats would be enough to pass the legislation if and when it is voted on next year; and it most certainly will be.

The problem is though, according to Senate rules, a 60 member supermajority is needed to pass such legislation.

Democrats need to pick up four additional seats tonight to get to that 60. Of course if they are close, say 58, there are two independents in the Senate that might vote with the Democrats, along with being able to wheel and deal with a couple of the more moderate -to- liberal Republicans like Maine Senator Susan Collins in return for getting their votes on the bill.

With a stronger majority in the Senate beginning in 2009 than they have now, it will be easier for the Democratic Senate leaders to convince (and wheel and deal) with moderate Republicans to join then in supporting legislation because the majority can use such dealing as a carrot and stick with these members.

The other problem with passing the measure in the Senate, unless the Democrats have the 60 member supermajority or are able to get the independents and a couple Republicans to vote with them, is that Republicans can filibuster the bill and any other legislation they want to prevent from being passed, which is what the GOP members did to the "Employee Free Choice Act" last year, resulting in its failure to pass. Sixty votes is the magic number to kill a filibuster.

The UFCW union's O'Neill is well aware of this.

"A supermajority in the Senate is our biggest obstacle right now," he says.

He and all of the other UFCW and organized labor leaders are counting Senate votes late into tonight, hoping to see the Democrats hit that magic number of 60.

Based on the latest election analysis at press time tonight, the Democrats still need to pick up five more Senate seats to hit the filibuster-proof 60. But they have gained five Senate seats so far tonight, so it is possible. Most analysis tonight though is suggesting they will fall two or three short of the 60.

Organized labor is already pushing House and Senate leaders to bring the "Employee Free Choice Act" legislation up for a vote as part of its early legislative agenda in 2009, after President-elect and the new members of Congress take office in late January.

The UFCW union's O’Neill says the bill will impose greater deterrents to "union-busting" but would ultimately benefit retailers by improving the spending capabilities of workers, reducing turnover and improving productivity.

He adds the UFCW "would likely look first at organizing non-union operators that share markets with union shops."

Since the top three supermarket chains in the U.S. -- Kroger Co., SuperValu, Inc. and Safeway Stores, Inc., as well as nearly all of the top 15 -- are unionized, organizing non-union food and grocery retailers that share markets with union shops essentially amounts to organizing all of the key non-union chains in the U.S.

This is even more true in the Western U.S. states of California, Nevada and Arizona where Tesco's Fresh & Easy has its 96 (and growing) grocery and fresh foods stores. All of the top grocery chains -- Safeway, Kroger's Ralphs, SuperValu's Albertsons, Bashas, Stater Bros, Save Mart and Raley's, along with even the majority of the substantial regional multi and single- store independents-- are unionized.

Therefore the non-union targets in these and nearby western states, along with Tesco's Fresh & Easy, most likely will be Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Costco and Trader Joe's, and perhaps the fast-growing natural foods chains Sprouts Farmers Market, Sunflower Farmers Market and a few others.

But, as we've reported and mentioned earlier in this piece, target number one is Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market. It's also the one out of all of the above the UFCW has made the most progress in organizing to date.

Tonight UFCW union leaders, along with their fellow organized labor associates from across all industries, are feeling more optimistic than they have for many decades that they can grow union membership throughout America beginning with the passage of the "Employee Free Choice Act," and signing of it by a new President, Democrat Barack Obama, who will be swore in as the 44th President of the United States in late January, 2009.

Of course, the legislation is called the "Employee Free Choice Act," which means workers get the final say as to if they want to be unionized and join the UFCW or any other union.

Based on our conversations with numerous Fresh & Easy store-level employees, it's our analysis that such a clear majority of workers wanting to join the UFCW isn't necessarily there yet. In other words it's far from a given conclusion that the majority of Fresh & Easy workers --or those at Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and the other chains -- will vote yes to unionization even if given the simplified opportunity to do so under the "Employee Free Choice Act."

In order to achieve that, the UFCW has much more work to do. The battle for the election may be over, and the passage of the "Employee Free Choice Act" may look far more probable for next year. But the war to increase union membership among employees at non-union food and grocery stores is far from won.

In order to do that the UFCW is going to have to do something it hasn't been able to do thus far over many years of attempting to organize employees of Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, for example, which is to demonstrate to them why it is in their best interests to become members of the UFCW.

Passage and implementation of the "Employee Free Choice Act" will without a doubt make that processes a bit easier. But it won't in and of itself even come close to assuring that non-union chain employees will vote yes to become UFCW-affiliated union shops.

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