Will They Love It at Levitz?

Levitz Furniture Co.’s recent victory against organized labor may have lost the war for other companies trying to decertify unions.

In 1994, the Pleasanton, Calif.-based Levitz refused to negotiate a new contract between the United Food and Commercial Workers (UF&CW) Union and one of its 60 stores. Levitz claimed that under the “good- faith doubt” standard set by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) 50 years ago, its unilateral decertification of the union was permissible because the store management received an employee petition– signed by what it deemed to be a majority of the workers–stating that they no longer wanted to be represented by the UF&CW. When the contract ran out on January 31, 1995, and the store became a nonunion shop, the UF&CW filed charges against Levitz to force recertification.

The NLRB finally ruled in favor of Levitz last March, but also decided that the 1951 doubt standard was fundamentally flawed, because it allowed employers to withdraw recognition from unions that may not have lost majority support. Following a sweeping rewrite of the rules, the new “good-faith reasonable uncertainty” standard requires companies to bear the burden of proof–preferably through a formal election and not a petition–that a union has lost majority support among workers. “The onus to show the loss of support has shifted from the workers to the employer,” says Dan Earls, president of UF&CW Local 101.

Companies gained one small concession: The NLRB lifted restrictions on calls for elections, which makes it easier for companies to test an incumbent union’s strength. But Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, points out that it’s never been easy to break a union, and the new rules don’t change that. — J.U.

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