Under the Employee Free Choice Act, Rite Aid and other employers, if found to be in violation of federal law, could face substantially higher penalties -- as much as $20,000 per violation, plus triple back wages for employees found to have been dismissed illegally.
In its most incendiary provision, the legislation would also allow employees to form bargaining units through "card checks," submitting pro-union signatures from a majority of workers without an election.
Organizers at Rite Aid say such a process would have greatly expedited union representation. Most businesses fiercely oppose card checks.
Under current law, companies facing union drives have the right to insist on a secret ballot election, as Rite Aid did. Labor activists say such in-house ballots are rife with management coercion. Companies say the balloting is sacrosanct.
"We think it's fair that our associates vote in a secret ballot, the same way that we all vote for our elected officials," Slavinsky of Rite Aid said.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 15, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
Rite Aid: An article in the Business section July 9 about union organizing efforts at Rite Aid Corp.'s distribution center in Lancaster implied that the company had fired 46 employees because of their organizing efforts. Rite Aid said the workers were laid off because of a reduced workload at the warehouse facility. A photo caption accompanying the story also misidentified Jeremy Edwards as a Rite Aid worker. He is a union organizer.
The warehouse union won the March 2008 vote 283 to 261, after rallies at Rite Aid stores throughout California. The union hailed the victory as a David-versus-Goliath tale.
"We showed that if we stand together, if we speak up, we can make changes for ourselves, our families and the people who come after us," declared Ignacio Meza, one of the two workers fired, allegedly for union advocacy, and later reinstated.
But, more than a year after the vote, Meza and his colleagues have no contract. Big issues, including benefits, work rules and job security, remain unsettled.
The proposed Employee Free Choice Act contains specific safeguards meant to eliminate incentives to stall negotiations, so-called surface bargaining. Under the proposed legislation, either party in initial contract talks could seek federal mediation within 90 days. If no accord is reached, the matter would be referred to binding arbitration.
Both sides in the Rite Aid dispute agreed last month to federal mediation, which is expected to start this month. The flutter of progress is inspiring some hope.
"I see a different atmosphere," Warner said. "All this has done is made us stronger."