Skip navigation
Fear of unions on the rise

Fear of unions on the rise

Next year could be a big one for unions, and that possibility is striking fear into the hearts of many restaurant operators.

If a Democrat moves into the White House in January, union activity and the amount of union-sponsored legislation is expected to increase, observers say, forcing restaurateurs to recalibrate what they historically have considered a minimal threat posed by organized labor.

“We’re not worried about being unionized; we’re worried about being in business,” says Pete Meersman, president and chief executive of the Colorado Restaurant Association, giving voice to worries shared by many at the specter of growing union power.

Among the most pressing concerns is the resurrection in Congress of card-check union-organizing legislation. The measure, which passed the House earlier this year but was narrowly defeated in the Senate, would have eliminated secret-ballot union elections in the workplace. Instead, the measure would have made it so employees merely indicate on cards whether or not they wanted to form a union.

Organized labor backed the Employee Free Choice Act, arguing it would prevent employers from intimidating workers prior to a union election. Businesses opposed it, saying it would allow union organizers to intimidate employees into signing the cards, denying them the right to a private vote.

Among the lawmakers who supported the proposal were presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. Presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., voted against it.

Most observers agree that the bill would have made it easier to form unions. For organized labor, the measure would have helped to stem the steady decline of union membership in the United States.

Union membership accounted for 12.1 percent of employed wage and salary workers in 2007, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year comparable data was available, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many union workers, almost 40 percent, are employed in the public sector as government workers such as teachers, fire fighters and police officers. Only 7.5 percent of union members work in the private sector, according to BLS statistics.

In the hospitality industry, unions are better represented in hotels than in restaurants. According to the BLS, unions represent 8.7 percent of people employed in the category of accommodations. In contrast, unions represent less than 2 percent of people employed in the category of foodservices and drinking places.

That low percentage of union membership may have lulled restaurant operators into a sense of security that unions were not much of a threat, observers say. However, the possibility of another card-check bill and other union activities are now forcing the industry to pay attention.

If a card-check bill passes next year, even small restaurant operators who may have been relatively unchallenged will be affected, says labor lawyer Michael Abcarian, a managing partner of Fisher & Phillips in Dallas.

“If you don’t expect the possibility or even the likelihood of union interest in organizing your employees, you are already way behind,” Abcarian says.

Some restaurant operators have begun to take the threat of increased union activity seriously, says industry lobbyist Rick Berman, president of Berman & Co. and a columnist for Nation’s Restaurant News. Berman has been managing a grass-roots campaign against a possible card-check bill in some of the swing states that could go either way in the Nov. 4 presidential election. Colorado, which hosted the Democratic National Convention in August, is one of several states where television and radio ads, direct-mail pieces, targeted Internet ads, and full-page ads in daily newspapers against card-check legislation are running this month.

“This one issue is the biggest of all,” Berman says. “If it goes down, it triggers all that extra money for unions [union dues], which buys power, and power creates the ability to impact agendas.”

Colorado has become an example of what operators in the country may experience if unions are able to exert more influence with lawmakers, Meersman says. Until recently, voters in the Centennial State were expected to decide in the November election the fate of four ballot measures that were backed by unions.

Among the measures that Local 7 of the United Food and Commercial Workers had successfully gathered enough signatures to put on the ballot were:

Ameasure to expand criminal liability for a business to any officer of a company, including a director, managing partner or sole proprietor.

Ameasure to restrict an employer of 20 people or more from firing an employee “without just cause,” putting an end to Colorado’s status as a work-at-will state.

Ameasure to allow civil lawsuits against employers for on-the-job injuries in addition to worker’s compensation.

Ameasure to mandate every business with 20 or more people to provide full health care benefits for employees and their dependents.

On Oct. 2, proponents of the measures agreed to drop them from the ballot after weeks of negotiations with business interests in exchange for funds to help them fight other ballot initiatives, according to the Denver Post. Meersman estimates that the health care measure alone would have cost restaurants $9,000 per employee per year. A business trying to maintain a 5-percent profit margin would need to increase annual sales by $180,000 per employee, he says. “If that could happen, it would happen,” Meersman says.

Prior to Oct. 2, the threat of the ballot measures had motivated Denver restaurateur Karen Kristopeit-Parker to write letters to the editor and encourage other restaurant owners to educate voters about the issues.

“We’re trying to impress on people how negative these ballot issues will be for restaurants,” says Kristopeit-Parker, who with chef Tim Bell owns the Fresh Fish Co. The seafood restaurant has been a Denver fixture for 26 years.

The Fresh Fish Co. employs about 100 people, and Kristopeit-Parker expected she would have to cut staff, reduce hours and raise prices if any of the ballot measures had passed, especially the health care proposal. “The costs are too great, not only to me as an independent restaurant, but to many others,” Kristopeit-Parker says. “I fear I would be forced to close my doors.”

Industry Issues 2008

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.