Taking On Nordstrom : Labor: Union leader Joe Peterson has been giving the retailer fits. One of his most powerful weapons against the public relations-minded chain is his own brand of PR.


Joe Peterson, a former college soccer star, is now playing a bruising game of hardball as a Seattle labor leader. Just ask the heavy hitters at Nordstrom, the opponent he has been clobbering.

The tiny Nordstrom chain has portrayed Peterson as a desperate union official who is manipulating the news media to spread irresponsible allegations that it abuses its sales staff. "He'll stop at nothing to defame the company in this fight," said Nordstrom spokeswoman Kellie Tormey.

But negotiators for other companies in the Seattle area, one of the few areas where Nordstrom is unionized, offer another opinion of Peterson. They say they like dealing with him. As president of 12,000-member Local 1001 of the United Food & Commercial Workers union, he has been known as a firm but straight-shooting negotiator with a record of settling disputes swiftly and quietly.

Then, last summer, the UFCW's contract talks with Nordstrom broke down and Peterson became convinced that management was bent on throwing out his union. He struck back by putting up the fight of his life, stirring dissension in Washington as well as in non-unionized stores as far away as Southern California and Virginia.

In the process, a little-known union leader normally described as a nice guy showed that he can play very tough against a major league corporation.

"I'm not used to dealing with people whose intent is to eliminate you," Peterson said. "When it comes to a matter of survival, you fight more aggressively than usual."

The result: Peterson's union has brought lawsuits and state and federal labor authorities down on Nordstrom, tarnishing the company's once-unblemished reputation with charges that it has pressured salespeople to work extra hours without pay.

To be sure, droves of employees have rejected Peterson and rallied to management's side. Also, UFCW members are still working without a new contract, and Nordstrom says it hasn't suffered any long-term financial damage from the fray. Still, the department store chain has been caught off-guard, out-finessed in an important public relations contest by a man that it antagonized and possibly underestimated.

"He's beating Nordstrom at their best game," crowed William J. Olwell, executive vice president for the UFCW in Washington, D.C.

An executive for another retail chain added: "You'll never see any more stories about how wonderful the Nordstrom people are because of this slam."

Slamming employers isn't Peterson's usual style. Trim and youthful at age 40, he comes across as one of a new breed of polished, professional union leaders. A seminary student for two years, he went on to earn a political science degree from Western Washington University.

With his wife of three years, Democratic political activist Theresa Doherty, Peterson lives the life of an affluent baby boomer.

Sue McNab, senior vice president of the Ernst Home Centers retail chain, said she appreciates the businesslike way that Peterson always negotiates with her. That, she said, is unlike some old-line male negotiators who "tend to dismiss" female executives.

"He is a reasonable person to deal with," McNab said, "in that he realizes that the company's success translates into the employees' success."

William T. Grimm, a Seattle management lawyer specializing in employment issues, called Peterson "an intelligent guy" who "likes to cut to the quick and get to the bottom line."

"Our firm has had good dealings with Joe Peterson--not to say he's a pussycat," Grimm said. "We can bump chests with the guy. But he knows what he's doing."

Since becoming president of his union local in 1986, Peterson said, he has negotiated or been responsible for about 350 contracts. Only once has there been a strike, a weeklong walkout that occurred when he was out of town. When he returned, an agreement was cut within a day.

Even if the Nordstrom dispute is by far his biggest battle, Peterson has demonstrated before that he knows how to win a fight. As a union politician, he survived three nasty election campaigns before running unopposed last year.

Earlier, Peterson had dueled with Nordstrom. Employed as a shoe salesman at a downtown Seattle Nordstrom store, he was fired in 1975 after joining a picket line staged by display workers. Peterson filed a complaint, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in his favor and he got his job back seven months later. He stayed with Nordstrom until 1977, when he went to work for the UFCW as a business agent.

Peterson's current battle with Nordstrom heated up Aug. 1, when the union's three-year contract for more than 1,500 office, display and sales workers expired with no sign of a new agreement. The chief point of contention has been Nordstrom's insistence on allowing workers, under any new contract, to choose whether they want to stay in the UFCW.

Whether Peterson is fighting for a worthy cause is a matter of perspective. In an interview, Co-Chairman James F. Nordstrom said his company's proposal came at the urging of workers who are disenchanted with the union and no longer want to pay its monthly dues. "We have a sense it's a strong majority who want a free choice," he said.

The company has bred deep loyalties among many employees, who say they like its family atmosphere, classy image and, by retailing standards, high pay.

But Peterson, like most labor leaders confronted with proposals for an open shop, saw the proposal as a push by management to oust organized labor, in this case from stores that have been unionized since the 1920s. If you give workers a choice in union membership, the reasoning goes, most will opt out so that they can gain the union benefits without paying the dues.

In any case, Peterson readily concedes that there was little support for a strike when the last contract expired Aug. 1, at least partly because Nordstrom has been so well-liked for so long in its hometown.

Nordstrom is "an icon," he said. "They're like the Catholic Church in Rome."

Consequently, Peterson and his supporters felt that they needed to tilt public opinion in their favor to extract a better contract agreement. So they launched a publicity campaign. They started by stationing tuxedo-clad union members at store entrances and having them hand out shopping bags emblazoned with statements from the union thanking customers "for making Nordstrom a success."

Peterson also began courting news reporters and made himself available at all hours for interviews.

Further, he isolated the Nordstrom situation by negotiating contracts months in advance for his other big retailing-union units at the Bon Marche and Frederick & Nelson department stores.

Most important, though, Peterson put out the word that the union was interested in fielding any complaints that its members or employees at non-unionized Nordstrom stores in other states might have about working conditions. "Joe knew this was going to be a high-stakes fight," said the UFCW's Olwell. "He was going to have to find issues that would bring them (Nordstrom) to the table."

One big issue quickly emerged. Salespeople came forth with complaints that they were pressured not to charge the company for hours they put in on such tasks as writing thank you notes and personally delivering merchandise to customers.

The union protested the practice in a complaint to the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. The agency gave the UFCW a major boost last month when it announced that it found a pattern of abuse by Nordstrom. It ordered the company to pay an unspecified amount of back wages.

Meanwhile, the union also won support from the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB accepted claims that Nordstrom violated federal labor law by negotiating directly with employees, rather than through the union and by withholding documents sought by the union to help in its contract negotiations.

Jim Nordstrom discounted the NLRB findings and said the state ruling stemmed from isolated, unintentional cases where workers were not fully paid.

He said the company will "fix" the off-the-clock work problem and noted that it already has set aside $15 million to settle back-pay claims.

If off-the-clock work was so prevalent, he added, why didn't the union complain about it before?

Peterson countered that he didn't know the extent of the problem. Nordstrom's practice in recent years of punishing salespeople with low sales-per-hour totals by, among other things, cutting their work hours, persuaded many to work off the clock without protest, he said.

But now Peterson talks confidently of prevailing over Nordstrom. He predicts that his local will win a contract that will both keep the chain's Seattle stores unionized and dissuade other employers from trying to smash organized labor.

"I've never given up on anything," he continued, "and I've never thought I've fought for a better cause."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 13, 1990 Home Edition Business Part D Page 2 Column 2 Financial Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction Nordstrom--Due to an editing error, the Nordstrom department store chain was inaccurately described as tiny in some of Monday's editions. The company, which posted sales of $2.67 billion in its last fiscal year, should have been described as tony.
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