Monday, March 2, 2009

Coming Soon to a Spa Near You: Unions!

I'm a small business owner who voted for President Obama, with one big reservation: his support for the controversial "Employee Free Choice Act," which fundamentally changes the process by which employees can be organized by a labor union.

According to the National Federation of Independent Business, under the new card-check system mandated by the Employee Free Choice Act, "a union gathers authorization cards signed by workers that express their desire to unionize. The unions would be able to collect these cards from your employees and independent contractors for as long as it takes to get 50 percent plus one," says author Lena Anthony, who penned an article on the topic for the current issue of NFIB's My Business magazine. (

Under current law, the "card check" system is a voluntary option for companies. However, the preferred method for most employers is a secret ballot, which is supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

"The NFIB believes a secret ballot election administered and supervised by the NLRB is the only way to protect the integrity of a worker's right to vote because it is a more accurate indicator than authorizing cards of whether employees actually wish to be recognized by a union. Each employee's choice is made in the privacy of a voting booth, with neither employer or union knowing how the individual voted," explains Anthony.
Enabling employees to vote privately on whether to unionize seems to be the best way to prevent manipulation and intimidation by either the employer or union organizers. The bill, named the "Employee Free Choice Act" (remember the "Clear Skies Act"? Sounds like the same folks named this one) there is an implication that employees currently don't have a free choice. Hello? Secret ballot? Reminds me of how we elect...a President!

Call me an idealist, but my belief is that if all businesses were run well and run ethically, we wouldn't have a demand for labor unions. Alas, we know that there are plenty of badly run businesses out there, and employees that are badly treated, and in a bad economy, things will likely get worse.

I think it's a testimonial to the core values of the spa industry that there are few unionized operations. However, unions would take a dim view of my perspective because like all other institutions, they now exist, in part, to perpetuate themselves as institutions. They need and want more money, like institutions do.

Yet union coffers have been dwindling since the 1980's. Perhaps the decline in labor union dues is a sign that the "price value" equation offered by unions has lost some of its appeal--after all, union representation is a service that employees pay for.

However, the conclusion that's been drawn in Washington by politicians that rely on union support is that this decline is due to the fact that it's too hard to organize. Hmmmm. I realize the President owes a debt of gratitude to organized labor for his victory, but I would like to finally see a President who pays more than lip service to the idea that this nation is sustained, built and ultimately healed by small business. And I've yet to meet a small business owner that thinks things run better after their company was unionized.

As hard as it is to make a go of it now, if the Employee Free Choice Act becomes reality, your path to profitability will be that much steeper. Don't think you're safe because you're small; it's actually easier to unionize small businesses. Under the card-check system, you won't even know you've been organized until you receive the notification that your spa is, voila, a union shop, says NFIB Executive Vice President Dan Danner. "Then the clock starts ticking for you to agree on a contract. If you can't agree on a contract within 120 working days, the Employee Free Choice Act mandates compulsory, binding arbitration on the employer and the employees as part of the collective bargaining process."

If they're forced into a collective bargaining situation, I know plenty of spa owners who will throw in the towel. We all know that there are easier ways to make a living than by employing people, even without having to navigate the delicate protocols of operating a union shop. Many an esthetician-turned-spa owner will likely just turn esthetician again, and slip off into the peace and quiet of a more profitable private practice. (And heaven forfend, we'll have yet another batch of spa consultants flooding the market!)

Personal service businesses are old school, old economy, and often labors of love. When labor doesn't love us back...beleagered small business owners will find other ways to express our entrepreneurial urges. And I guarantee you they will involve fewer, if any, employees.

Unfortunately, we small business owners are a squirmy bunch. We're independent, we don't play well with others and we're politically all over the map. (Instead of lobbying, we'd rather do something productive--like generate two-thirds of the jobs in this nation.)

If our new government is serious about job creation, the first order of business is to ensure that it's easier, not harder, for companies to succeed, and to keep employing the workers we currently have. I desperately hope that one of President Obama's first "shovel ready projects" isn't digging a grave for small business.

Please contact your US Senator, forward or excerpt this blog wantonly, and learn more about the Employee Free Choice Act.

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