The Employee Free Choice Act, one of the most bitterly contested bills currently facing Congress, would strengthen workers’ right to choose a union and bargain with their employers over issues of wages and benefits. When making the case for this landmark legislation, its supporters often point to the actions of the country’s most aggressively anti-union employers. And there are plenty of good examples to go round. According to a report just released by Cornell University, both legal and illegal anti-union tactics have become much more widespread in recent years.
But to fully appreciate why we need labor-law reform, we should look instead at the actions of firms that claim, often with considerable justification, to be good corporate citizens. Let’s consider the case of the UK–based Tesco, the world’s third largest retail chain, which operates under the name Fresh & Easy in California, Nevada and Arizona. Since 2007, Fresh & Easy has opened over 100 stores throughout the western United States and has plans to open hundreds more.
Tesco cares deeply about its corporate reputation. The company’s Human Rights Policy states, “Employees have the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. We recognize the right of our staff anywhere in Tesco around the world to join a recognized trade union and bargain collectively where this is allowed within national law.” In the UK, Tesco has a pioneering and successful partnership agreement with the shop-workers union, Usdaw. For more than a decade, Tesco and Usdaw have cooperated successfully over issues of job training, employment security, work rules, and other issues of critical importance to both the company and employees. One British Member of Parliament has called the company a “hallmark of employee involvement” and the partnership agreement between Tesco and Usdaw has benefitted the company, employees and consumers.
In the United States, however, Tesco has taken a more troubling and adversarial stance, especially in the area of workers’ rights. The company has declined to meet with a broad coalition of community, environmental and consumer groups in Los Angeles, and it has refused numerous requests to meet with the United Food and Commercial Workers union. In 2008, Tesco’s steadfast refusal to meet with these groups caught the attention of then-presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, both of who wrote letters to Tesco CEO Tim Leahy asking him to reconsider the company’s policy of non-engagement. Senator Obama urged Leahy “to reconsider your policy of non-engagement ... and advise your executives at Fresh & Easy to meet with the UFCW. I am aware of Tesco’s reputation in Britain as a partner to unions. I would hope that you would bring those values to your work in America.”
Fresh & Easy’s determined opposition to unions and collective bargaining doesn’t stop at a policy of non-engagement. In addition to refusing to meet with representatives from the union, Fresh & Easy has advertised for a human resource director with responsibility for “maintaining non-union status and union avoidance activities.” (In U.S. labor relations, union avoidance is widely understood as code for “union busting”—an inelegant but accurate term.) Management has instructed employees not to talk about union issues at work, even while it forces them to listen to anti-union speeches, and has distributed anti-union literature and coordinated supposedly organic employee opposition to the union.
The contrast between Tesco’s behavior in the U.S. and the UK is striking. When employees at Fresh & Easy’s store in Huntington Beach presented a petition to the company requesting union representation signed by a majority of the employees in 2008, they were told that the company would not recognize their demand because they did not represent an “informed majority.” The company also argued that U.S. labor law is different from UK law (which encourages firms to recognize unions without forcing employees to go through a lengthy and confrontational election process), and thus it would be “irresponsible” to behave in the same way in the U.S. as it does in the UK. So much for respecting employees’ free choice.
So in the UK Tesco practices cooperation and partnership with labor unions, while in the United States it is dedicated to union avoidance, even when the majority of its employees want union representation. And Tesco is not alone in this respect. Several other multinationals that cooperate with unions in Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Korea and elsewhere fight aggressively against employees’ efforts to form unions in the United States. And labor law currently offers American workers little protection against the actions of hostile employers. Or even against those of the “good ones.” This is why we need the Employee Free Choice Act.
John Logan is research director for the Labor Center at UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.