By and  on September 1, 2009

Regis Corp. broke into the news over the weekend after published reports suggested it is asking employees to sign a form opposing the Employee Free Choice Act.

Secret ballots are at the heart of a contentious debate in Washington over the Employee Free Choice Act. In its current form, the legislation would make it easier for workers to unionize by eliminating secret-ballot elections in favor of an open card check option that would allow for a union to form if a majority of workers signed pro-union cards. Supporters of the EFCA say the shift away from the secret ballots historically used to organize workplaces is necessary to avoid intimidation by management during elections. Business leaders opposed to the bill counter that the change would expose workers to peer pressure during the process. Many large retail companies, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and several industry associations, oppose the legislation in its current form.

The debate is expected to heat up this fall when Congressional leaders return from the August recess. To date the bill has stalled and legislators are trying to strike a compromise.

Paul D. Finkelstein, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Regis Corporation, strongly denies that the company is attempting to keep employees from unionizing. The issue was raised by a report in The New York Times on Sunday, detailing a debate stemming from the company’s request that stylists in its Cost Cutters salon in Great Falls, Mont., sign the disputed document.

“We’re very transparent,” said Finkelstein, whose company owns, franchises or holds ownership interests in more than 12,900 worldwide locations. Regis’ corporate and franchised locations operate under a variety of names, including Supercuts, Regis Salons, Sassoon Salon, Cost Cutters and MasterCuts. “We took this course of action in response to requests from our employees, who said that they wanted to be bound by a secret ballot. We are not asking our employees not to unionize. We are not requiring them to sign anything. We are not telling them how to vote. We are simply preserving our employees’ rights to unionize by secret ballot; the form preserves that right. It’s like a presidential election — you don’t necessarily want everyone to know how you’ve voted. It is the same principle here.”

Finkelstein said to date, 90 percent of Regis’ employees have signed the form, and that, in fact, it was devised in response to internal focus groups at Regis. “Our employees continue to tell us that they want to have the right to a secret ballot,” he said. “That is all this form does.”

Labor sources disagreed, adding that Regis’ efforts appear to be isolated. A spokesman for Workers United, which represents 150,000 textile workers, apparel, laundry and retail distribution workers, said the Regis effort was the first such move in recent years.

“This attempt to take away workers’ rights hasn’t been seen since the Western metal mines of the early 20th century and it is totally inappropriate in modern society,” said Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United.

There are no immediate plans to take action against Regis or the local salon, said Olaf Stimac, president of the Central Montana Central Labor Council, but local unions are looking into future steps to help the former salon manager who resigned over the document. Possible steps could include a filing with the National Labor Relations Board, Stimac said.

Stimac and other labor executives contend that the Regis move attempts to limit workers’ access to a unionby discouraging its formation.

“We will be looking into this,” he said.

A document provided to WWD by the Central Montana Central Labor Council said: “In order to preserve my right to a secret ballot election, and for my own protection, I knowingly and without restraint and free from coercion sign this agreement revoking and nullifying any union authorization card I may execute in the future.”

The document went on to state that Regis would be authorized to “submit this Agreement at such future time as any union seeks to establish majority status through any card check procedure and, based upon this Agreement, any union authorization card bearing my signature should not be counted to establish union majority status.”

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