The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, January 06, 2012

NLRB cracks open door to more union organizing

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON – The nation’s union movement achieved a rare victory on Dec. 21, when new rules were adopted by the National Labor Relations Board that will make it tougher for employers to stall union organizing drives.

Labor leaders have long sought changes to U.S. workplace law, which allow companies that are targeted by unions to delay organizing votes, sometimes for years. Employers use any of a number of tactics to delay organizing votes, including changing worker classifications, legal challenges and worker intimidation during closed-door meetings.

“By adopting this very important rule, workers across the nation seeking to collectively bargain achieved an important victory,” said David Madland, director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “The process adopted by the National Labor Relations Board will help employees, who have petitioned for an election, gain the right to a vote without costly delays, intimidation or unnecessary litigation.”

Praise from the AFL-CIO was more muted. Federation President Rich Trumka called it a “modest but important step to help ensure that workers who want to vote to form a union at their workplace get a fair opportunity to do so. Many more improvements are needed to protect workers’ rights. We hope the Board will quickly move to adopt the rest of its proposed reforms to modernize and streamline the election process.”

Under the new rules, employers must defer any legal challenges to organizing drives until after workers hold their vote to install or reject union representation.

In recent years, employers have undertaken a number of tactics to delay organizing votes, including attempts to re-classify workers as supervisors, thus making them ineligible for union representation. In particular, employers have tried to reclassify nurses as supervisors, even though the only supervising they perform is over workers like nurses’ assistants, with no ability to hire, fire or discipline.

Wins like this are rare for organized labor, and the victory is directly tied to the ability of President Barack Obama to institute a Democratic majority on the NLRB. Normally the NLRB is a five-member body, but there are only three (two Democrats and one Republican) because Republicans in Congress refuse to seat any other nominees. There was a rush to get this reform adopted before the end of 2011, because the term of one of the Democrats expired on Jan. 1 – ending the NLRB’s three-member quorum and their legal ability to make rules – and Republicans have shown no inclination to approve any replacements to the board.

The AFL-CIO said “business groups and Republican lawmakers went apoplectic and mounted a massive campaign against the NLRB” when the reforms were brought up last year. In November, House Republicans approved a bill that gives employers new tools to combat and delay elections by workers who try to form unions. It was a direct response to the new NLRB election rule. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, didn’t take up the measure. Congressional Republicans have made nearly 50 separate assaults on the NLRB since January by holding hearings, issuing subpoenas, and proposing bills to gut the agency’s funding and eliminate its ability to hold employers accountable for violating workers’ rights, according to American Rights at Work.

The anger from the right over the NLRB’s action usually took the form of outrage that employers were somehow being given the bad end of the bargain because they might not have time to hold captive audience meetings with their employers to threaten and cajole them to reject the union.

Typical was the reaction from Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation, who said the rules give “union bosses increased power to ambush workers into dues-paying union ranks.” He added: “Although a secret ballot election can’t prevent the fundamental violation of individual rights that occurs under union boss monopoly bargaining, at the very least an election period is needed that gives workers enough time to educate their coworkers about the potential impact of unionization after months or even years of union organizing and propaganda.”

It’s laughable that in Mix’s world, it’s employees – not employers – who might try to “educate” their coworkers about the evils of unionism.

Private sector unionization has dropped to just 6.9 percent of the U.S. workforce. But it’s not enough for Big Business and their Republican friends. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit to overturn the NLRB’s ruling.

Gary Chaison, a professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., told The Wall Street Journal “there’s not a hell of a lot of union organizing happening any more.” He said there may now be a spurt of organizing campaigns to test the new rules.