Starbucks, Costco and Whole Foods team up on labor bill

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Starbucks, Costco Wholesale Corp and Whole Foods Market are joining forces to propose alternatives to a bill that makes it easier for workers to unionize but is strongly opposed by U.S. corporations.

The three retail giants said on Saturday they sought a “third way” as big business and labor unions face off over the Employee Free Choice Act, backed by President Barack Obama.

The “card check” legislation would let workers form a union when a majority of employees sign authorization cards. That would change the current practice in which workers usually vote on unionizing, although the bill would leave the election option open for workers to choose.

Passing the bill is a top priority of labor unions, which in November helped Obama win the White House and the Democrats increase their hold on Congress. Unions, which suffered decades of declining membership, argue that elections allow anti-union managers to intimidate and harass employees.

U.S. businesses and investors oppose the legislation, with analysts saying retail names from Wal-Mart to Target would face higher labor costs and greater unionization risks. Wal-Mart said last week it was confident the legislation would be defeated in Congress.

Starbucks, Costco and Whole Foods, which invited other corporations, unions and public interest groups to join them, proposed instead that unions be given more access to meet with workers, stricter penalties for labor violations and a guaranteed right to request secret ballots in all circumstances.

“We believe in and trust our employees, which is neither anti-union nor pro-status quo,” said Costco CEO James Sinegal.

The three companies will provide more details of their proposals on Sunday.

“Given the severe economic crisis facing America, it is time to avoid the polarization that has occurred on both sides of this issue, and instead, come together to find a productive approach,” said Lanny Davis, an attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who was cited in the statement.

Reporting by Edwin Chan; Editing by Peter Cooney