Like it or not, small business owners like many in the food service industry are experiencing a period of drastic change labor laws. As health care reform becomes a reality, several other projects championed by Democratic lawmakers will start nudging their way back to the top of the agenda – including the much maligned Employee Free Choice Act, also known as Card Check.
The legislation would change the way unions are formed in the workplace, making it easier for employees to mobilize and vote on unionization and limiting interference by employers. Critics say unions would be able to intimidate workers into unionizing under card check.
Predictably, industry groups like the National Restaurant Association (NRA) are against card check, citing an insufferable increase in operating costs as their primary grievance. The debate over card check heated up over the summer then died down with the emergence of health care reform. But it will soon return as a hot button issue in 2010, and both sides are already starting to mobilize.
The irony is that health care reform and card check legislation are symptoms of a deeper problem, and are not in themselves the issue. Restaurateurs and industry groups like the NRA would do well to recognize the trends in worker attitudes that have led to support for reform, rather than bemoaning the legislation that has been proposed as a result.
It all boils down to this: workers aren’t happy with their compensation or their benefits. According to an article by Joseph Gravish, a human resources professional, employee surveys reveal that less than 35% of workers are satisfied with their benefits and 26% are satisfied with their compensation, and 80% would move to another job if the opportunity was better.
For restaurant owners and managers, it’s easy in a down labor market to take employees for granted. Stories like the Applebee’s that opened in the Bronx last summer after receiving 6,500 applicants for 120 positions (Harvard has a higher acceptance rate) can lull you into a false sense of security: “If you don’t want to work here, I’ll find someone who does.” Add the cash flow crisis that has resulted from the drop in consumer spending, and you get managers who just aren’t willing to spend any more than they absolutely have to on payroll.
The problem is, the labor market won’t be down forever. Even worse, most businesses, especially in food service, didn’t invest much in their employees when times were good. The result is an unhappy workforce ready for bills like Card Check to help them force positive change in the terms of their employment.
Creative compensation strategies and greater employee involvement in wage and benefit decisions are ways restaurants can avoid the unionization of their workforce. As the NRA loves to point out, food service is one of the biggest employers by industry in the U.S. Their point is that hurting their business hurts overall employment. By the same token, food service should be taking a leadership role on labor issues, rather than squabbling with Congress over bills like card check.
Being proactive rather than reacting to symptoms of labor unrest like card check is food service’s recipe for better relations with their workers. Trying to excuse your way out of dealing with worker dissatisfaction is a guaranteed way to cultivate the very thing most restaurateurs want to avoid: the unionization of their workforce.