business news in context, analysis with attitude

Walmart in recent years has been trying to cultivate a less partisan image, inviting Al Gore to speak at a company meeting and spreading its lobbying dollars around – whereas it used to spend 98 percent of its money cultivating Republicans, now it spends 48 percent on Democrats and 52 percent on members of the GOP.

But where it counts, Walmart still is willing to go to the mattresses to prevent Democrats from getting too much power. The Wall Street Journal has a long page-one story this morning about how Walmart is working very hard to tell all of its US store managers and department managers that if Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois) defeats Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) for the presidency, it may well end up in the passage of legislation that will result in the unionization of Walmart’s stores.

While the retailers apparently walks right up to the edge of what is legal and proper, not actually telling people how to vote, the company also reportedly leaves little doubt about where it stands on this issue.

“The actions by Wal-Mart -- the nation's largest private employer -- reflect a growing concern among big business that a reinvigorated labor movement could reverse years of declining union membership,” the Journal writes. “That could lead to higher payroll and health costs for companies already being hurt by rising fuel and commodities costs and the tough economic climate.”

According to the story, “Wal-Mart's worries center on a piece of legislation known as the Employee Free Choice Act, which companies say would enable unions to quickly add millions of new members.”

The act “would simplify and speed labor's ability to unionize companies. Currently, companies can demand a secret-ballot election to determine union representation. Those elections often are preceded by months of strident employer and union campaigns.

“Under the proposed legislation, companies could no longer have the right to insist on one secret ballot. Instead, the Free Choice, or ‘card check,’ legislation would let unions form if more than 50% of workers simply sign a card saying they want to join. It is far easier for unions to get workers to sign cards because the organizers can approach workers repeatedly, over a period of weeks or months, until the union garners enough support.”

KC's View:
I’ve had employers big and small tell me that EFCA is an enormous potential problem for them, and argue that it creates a playing field that gives unions an advantage that will be hard to overcome. (And some of this comes from employers who I know are exceptionally fair and generous to their staffers…and should ordinarily never have to worry about unionization.)

I’m neither a lawyer nor a labor expert, but I do think that EFCA has some onerous implications for employers…and makes things far too easy for the unions. At least part of this opinion is informed by the fact that I think too many union leaders are more concerned about their own power and influence than about the working conditions, wages and benefits enjoyed by their members. There are times when unions serve a purpose, and times when they do not. But the culture doesn’t seem able to absorb this notion very well.

(I say all this as someone who is married to a member of the teachers’ union.)

What sort of fascinates me is that both sides of the EFCA issue – management and labor – seem to view this as a David-and-Goliath battle, and each side thinks that it has the role of David.