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Sunday, July 14, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Showdown At Nordstrom -- Long-Simmering Battle With Union Comes To A Head

At Nordstrom, where shoppers jam the aisles searching for the latest summer fashions and salesclerks ply the vaunted Nordy tradition of pampering customers, there are virtually no signs of a coming showdown.

Business is booming as clerks busily prepare for the year's biggest sale, which starts Friday.

But behind-the-scenes, tensions are high as Nordstrom and Local 1001 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union get ready to face off in an election this week to decertify the union that has represented salesclerks and office workers for nearly 60 years.

Its outcome is unlikely to affect Nordstrom's loyal customers, or even most of its work force. Local 1001 represents just 1,850 salesclerks and office workers in five King County stores, out of 30,000 employed in the retailer's 64 stores.

But the election, one of the largest decertification attempts in Washington state in 25 years, is being watched by political, retail and labor observers throughout the nation.

In many ways, it represents a climax to a bitter, personal battle that the Nordstrom family and Joe Peterson, president of Local 1001 and a former Nordstrom shoe salesman himself, have been waging for two years.

For both sides, the stakes are high.

For Local 1001, a defeat would mean the loss of one of its biggest and oldest contracts and 14 percent of the 13,000 employ-ees it represents statewide.

A loss probably will bring an end to the union's highly visible negative publicity campaign that led to a series of unfair-labor-practice charges against the company, attorney-general investigations in several states, and class-action lawsuits by shareholders and employees.

This is an election that Nordstrom wants badly to win.

In a videotape shown to employees, a fatherly sounding Bruce Nordstrom, one of three company co-chairmen, emphasized that Nordstrom has "rolled up its sleeves" to push the union out of its "extended family."

As the election nears, many labor and political observers predict Nordstrom will win.

Many employees are new, and in the retail industry, where turnover is high, workers increasingly have been apathetic toward unions.

When a shoe salesman and three other salesclerks began circulating a petition to decertify Local 1001 in April, they collected more than 600 signatures within one month.

In December, Nordstrom also became an "open shop," which means employees are not required to pay union dues. Since then, it is estimated that less than half its workers do so.

"Employee loyalty at Nordstrom seems to run pretty deep," says Brett Bader, a Seattle political consultant and former Nordstrom salesclerk.

Companies have won about 75 percent of the more than 200 union-decertification elections in the state since 1986. Local 1001, which has been involved in 16 such elections in the past five years, has won only three.

"I'd say we're underdogs," Peterson says. "But a lot of long shots have turned out to be winners."

When Local 1001 launched its negative publicity campaign two years ago, Peterson appeared to be clearly on top, making one visible move after the other. His efforts led to:

-- A front-page Wall Street Journal article in which employees revealed they were forced to attend company pep rallies, write thank-you notes and do other jobs, such as recording cosmetic sales in account books, on their own time, or "off the clock."

The article caused faithful Nordy shoppers throughout the country to think twice about their favorite store. Jim Nordstrom, publicity-shy co-chairman, suddenly found himself on radio talk shows, defending the company's reputation.

-- A Washington Department of Labor & Industries investigation that found Nordstrom indeed was not paying employees for some of the work they had done.

-- A drop in the price of Nordstrom stock, which caused shareholders to file suit alleging the retailer did not disclose a potential liability that the complaints of "off the clock" work would have on their investments.

-- Attorney-general investigations in Washington, Oregon and California into union charges that Nordstrom encouraged its employees to sell used clothing and makeup, such as lipstick, as new.

-- A class-action lawsuit filed by Local 1001 on behalf of Nordstrom employees throughout the country who say they were forced to work "off the clock."

Nordstrom has resolved most of these cases by agreeing to settlements with shareholders and government agencies. It is still fighting the union on the employee class-action lawsuit in King County Superior Court.

The union also filed numerous unfair-labor-practices charges against Nordstrom, many of which the National Labor Relations Board dismissed.

These actions gave Nordstrom its first dose of bad publicity in recent history, and the retailer initially seemed unprepared for the onslaught of questions from reporters.

The company's co-chairmen retreated to their offices, referring news media to the company's public-relations staff. As local newspapers and other media continued to cover the story, the hostility grew and eventually the retailer pulled most of its advertising from The Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer.

Now, one year later, the advertising is back. And Nordstrom officials, with coaching from Seattle's Elgin-Syferd public-relations firm, openly discuss their well-planned strategy to oust Local 1001.

Nordstrom won't say how much it is spending on the campaign, but it is clearly shouldering the bulk of the anti-union drive. Nordstrom Employees Opposed to Union Representation, or NEOUR, the employee group that submitted the decertification petition, says it will spend only $10,000, mostly on mailings.

Signs on employee bulletin boards in the downtown store pit employee loyalties against union support: "Things Aren't as They Seem." "You can't be pro-Nordstrom and pro-Union." "Think Positive - Vote No."

A 24-hour hotline answers employee questions about the decertification from Nordstrom's perspective.

In videotaped messages, which employees are required to watch at staff meetings, Nordstrom carries its case farther.

One shows a scene in the lunchroom where "Sally," a new employee seeks information on the decertification from "Laura," a pert, fashionably dressed anti-union employee and "Rick," a burly pro-union employee with a wart on his face.

The other features Bruce Nordstrom pointing out that the union's "negative input" has "really hurt" and urges employees to vote for the family by voting "no" for the union.

Meanwhile the union says it is spending about $15,000 on mailings, telephoning employees at home and on information booths set up at hotels near Nordstrom stores.

In decertification elections, companies usually have an advantage because they, unlike politicians, do not have to give their unions "equal time" for campaigning, observers say.

"The union has got to do its best to explain why it's there, but it's at a decided disadvantage," says Ross Rieder, president of the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, and a consultant to unions.

Union representatives said last week they may file an unfair-labor-practice charge against Nordstrom over some of its campaign tactics. In that event, the election would likely still be held, but the union might ask that the ballots not be counted until the National Labor Relations Board resolves the charge.

Some employees say they are afraid to talk about the election, fearing retribution.

"I'm not going to comment and that's something you should consider," one employee told a reporter. "Employees are afraid to say anything."

Peterson has challenged John Rockwood, the shoe salesman who heads NEOUR, and Nordstrom officials to a debate but has been refused.

"We don't want to talk to them," says Joe Demarte, vice president of personnel. "We have our own time to talk to employees; they have theirs."

Nordstrom's position is that its employees tend to make more money than salesclerks at other stores because of commissions, not union-negotiated hourly wages, as Peterson contends.

And employees in other stores receive the same benefits as those in Seattle, union or not, he says.

"This union has a clerk's mentality," says Demarte. "They keep pushing for such things as higher hourly rates. We see ourselves as more progressive, where our employees are professionals, compensated in a pay-for-performance way."

Peterson points out that since the union has raised awareness of "off the clock" work issues, Nordstrom has begun paying employees for more of the work they do that does not directly involve selling. He adds that without union representation, there's no guarantee Nordstrom won't revert to its earlier practices.

If the union is ousted, speculation is other retailers may also try to push for decertifications.

"There's a lot of people out there who want to emulate Nordstrom," says Greg Tarpinian, executive director of the New York-based Labor Research Association, which researches economic and labor issues and provides consulting to unions.

"A high-profile decertification election like this is likely to embolden others to try it as well."

But a defeat of Local 1001 is unlikely to end Nordstrom's dealings with the union altogether.

Leaders of such labor groups as the King County Labor Council and other union locals say they may call for a boycott of Nordstrom if Local 1001 is decertified.

And regardless of the election's outcome, Nordstrom's battle with Local 1001 will continue over the "off the clock" issue in King County Superior Court.

ELECTION DETAILS:

WHAT: Nordstrom union decertification vote.

WHEN: Wednesday and Thursday

WHO VOTES: 1,850 Nordstrom sales clerks and office workers in King County

WHERE: Voting will take place by secret ballot in employee lunchrooms at various times during store hours.

RESULTS: Ballots will be counted Friday morning and a preliminary result will be announced. Both sides have until July 25 to file objections. After these objections have been investigated, the National Labor Relations Board will officially certify the vote.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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