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The Lowdown on Legislation

SIGMA committee briefed on unionizing, renewable fuels, gas taxes, credit-card fees
CHICAGO -- Attendees of SIGMA's 2009 Annual Meeting in Chicago got a less-than-optimistic update on the Employee Free Choice Act during the always-crowded Legislative Meeting. Noting that the White House is now driving the debate, attorney Steve Wheeless of Steptoe & Johnson LLP said he expects the bill will be presented to the full Senate in the first quarter of 2010.

"The economy did not change the tenor of the debate in the White House" on this issue, which includes so-called Card Check legislation that would ease the process of employees unionizing," Wheeless said. "[[image-nocss] President Obama] is very engaged on this topic, even in the midst of an economic crisis."

Wheeless said he expects the card-check option, which as it stands now would remove the requirement for workers to sign cards indicating a desire to unionize, will likely be approved in some altered form, one that would likely allow elections to unionize to occur within 15 days of filing intent vs. the current four or five months.

With approval of the act likely, Wheeless offered some suggestions to the retailers and petroleum wholesalers at the meeting.

"You want to inoculate your workforce against [unions]," he said. "If you're silent on this subject, your employees will perceive that as acceptance, that you don't care if they unionize."

He noted that it is illegal to say things such as "If you unionize, we will go out of business"; however, he noted that company management can say, "If a union comes knocking, tell them you're not interested."

Wheeless added, "The No. 1 reason that employees turn to unions is that they don't like [their] first line of supervision." Thus, he said company leads should aim to neutralize antagonistic relationships whenever possible.

During the session, the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America'sLegislative Committee and legal counsel addressed several other pending issues, including:

Health-care Reform. Noting that the House of Representatives narrowly approved a health-care bill, SIGMA counsel noted the Senate will like take up the bill in the first quarter of 2010. "This is a real game-changer," said one attorney. "This and climate change are examples of what's happened to political discourse in the United States."

Federal Excise Tax on Fuels. Noting that newer hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles to be introduced in 2010 use less or no gasoline, the Legislative Committee agreed to lead a charge for Congress to consider a new vehicle mileage-based tax rather than increasing the current fuel tax. The change would alleviate concerns that a drop in gasoline volumes due to the use of these vehicles will mean higher taxes on the gallonage that is sold.

Renewable Fuels. The Energy Independence & Security Act mandates the use of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022. Noted several times throughout the SIGMA meeting, it is unlikely there will be enough ethanol produced in the United States to meet that requirement. Thus, SIGMA is suggesting RINs (renewable identification numbers) or renewable fuel credits be created at the point of blending, putting the onus on refiners to meet the standards rather than marketers or retailers.

Interchange Fees. Hank Armour, president and CEO of NACS, updated the committee on his organization's efforts to fight credit-card fees. Noting that 7-Eleven's consumer petition drive opposing the fees drew 1.7 million signatures and Circle K's received another 500,000, he encouraged business leaders in the meeting with retailer sites to take part in NACS' petition drive effort to make this the largest petition effort in the history of Congress. "If someone comes in to [a convenience store] to buy a pack of gum on a debit card, which is not unheard of," Armour said, "you're better off giving them the gum because the interchange fee is more than the cost of the gum."

For more from SIGMA's 2009 Annual Meeting, see CSPTV all this week.

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