Like many retail executives, Regis Corp. CEO Paul Finkelstein makes no bones about his distaste for unions.

"Thank God there's never been a successful one in 43 years I've been in [this] business," he said. "If we were the only union store in town, we couldn't be competitive."

But the hair-care giant's attempts to control unionizing efforts have launched investigations by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) into potentially illegal practices at salons in four states. The most recent charge came last week from a workers' group in Ithaca, N.Y.

The NLRB's regional office in Minneapolis, which is coordinating the nationwide probe, said it will forward the case to officials at the Washington, D.C., headquarters in the next two weeks. If the national office determines the charges have merit -- the equivalent of a probable cause finding -- it could result in a settlement or send the matter to court.

Finkelstein, who has hired the high-powered law firm of Jackson Lewis to represent Regis, is prepared to fight.

"It's a potential Supreme Court case, frankly," he said.

At issue is a document Regis asked stylists and other employees to sign beginning in August, at a time when Congress was discussing the Employee Free Choice Act. The legislation would have made it easier to form unions, in part because it eliminated a secret ballot election. Under the bill, unions could be formed simply by a majority of employees signing cards pledging their support.

Regis, which operates nearly 8,000 company stores including Supercuts, Cost Cutters, Regis and MasterCuts, presented workers with a form asking them to agree to revoke their future right to form a union by using an authorization card. The purpose of the agreement, according to the document, was to protect a worker's ability to vote in a secret ballot election.

"We don't tell them how to vote," Finkelstein said. "We do believe that even if there's a union election, it should be via secret ballot. That our people should not be intimidated by unions -- or by us. It is an absolute personal right that every individual gets to vote with a secret ballot."

David Larson, a professor of labor and employment law at the Hamline University School of Law, thinks Regis might have crossed the line.

"I don't particularly think it's legal for a variety of reasons," Larson said. "There's a good argument that this is interfering with the formation of a labor organization, given that this [getting authorization cards signed] is an accepted way to do it."

Larson added that "if it's being signed at the same time that the employee is coming to work, there's a real question as to whether they're being forced to sign it. If they're being pressured to sign it ... then that's definitely a problem."

Finkelstein said Regis' attorneys created what it calls a "protection of secret vote agreement" because workers too often have "no idea what they're signing" when presented with authorization cards by union activists.

The company still asks workers to sign the agreement, which was revised in recent months to put it in "plain English," Finkelstein said.

About 10 to 20 percent of workers haven't signed it, he said. "None have been terminated," he said. "It's voluntary."

That's not how Elaine Williams-Bell and Colleen Zarr see it.

They were among five former Regis employees in Wisconsin, Florida, New York and Indianapolis who told federal investigators that they felt their jobs were at risk if they didn't sign the form -- or who said they lost jobs because they questioned it.

"I felt like I was in an intimidating environment, that I would be fired if I didn't sign the form," said Zarr, of Chippewa Falls, Wis., who worked at a MasterCuts salon. "I signed it. I was so angry sitting there, I wanted to stand up. I was so worried about my job."

Williams-Bell of Fort Pierce, Fla., disputes a regional manager's reasons for firing her from her job at SmartStyle.

"I was not fired because I took more than a 30-minute lunch break and because I didn't clock in when I should," she said. "I know it was as a result of not signing the document. Not only did I not sign it, I was known to be a stylist who spoke out."

Congress' interest in the Employee Free Choice Act has taken a back seat to health care, the economy and two wars. And many believe that if it gets revived, the secret ballot issue -- the key sticking point politically and for Regis-- will fall away.

"We've been told significant labor law reform is 'parked,' but we're not going to wait for our elected friends to do something," said Bernie Hesse, an organizer with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789 in St. Paul. "We'll continue to explore conventional and unconventional ways to take care of workers and give them a voice at work. We're sorely disappointed in their inactivity."

The union represents a few stylists in Minneapolis and Duluth, but more on the East Coast, he said.

"If anybody ever needed a union, it's barbers and cosmetologists," Hesse said. "They're getting extorted over chair rental and they frequently suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome because they're being forced to make so many cuts a day."

With or without a revival of the bill, the dispute now sits with the NLRB -- which has been operating with only two members since 2007, but needs five members to form a quorum needed to set new guidelines.

Activists are lobbying for President Obama to fill the vacant board seats.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335