By Dmitri Iglitzin & Steven Hill
With the Democratic Party regaining control of Congress for the first time since 1994, Democratic leaders should look to undo the effects the Bush administration has had on America's workers. But that won't be easy, because one institution that remains solidly in Republican and anti-worker hands is the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the country's chief arbiter of labor disputes.
Although nominally a quasi-judicial entity appointed by the president and empowered to adjudicate labor disputes, the NLRB actually sets the rules that govern those disputes and thereby exerts an enormous influence over who prevails.
In case after case over the past several years, the Republican-dominated board has taken positions that have hurt America's workers.
Last year, in the Oakwood Healthcare decision, the board found (by its usual 3 to 2 Republican majority) that a group of Michigan nurses are excluded from the protection of the nation's most important labor laws on the spurious grounds that they are "supervisors," not employees. In one stroke, these workers - and potentially tens of thousands of others - lost the right to be in a union and to advocate collectively for workplace improvements.
The same September day as the Oakwood decision, the board also cut back on the right of employees to wear union buttons at work. That case arose out of a dispute in San Diego at the W Hotel, which, according to its owner, the Starwood Hotels & Resorts chain, seeks to give its guests a "wonderland" hotel experience where they get "whatever they want, whenever they want it."
For its employees, however - mostly low-paid Latino laborers - the hotel is no wonderland. Some wore buttons bearing four words - "Justice Now! Justicia Ahora!" - and the name of their union. The W demanded workers take them off.
The NLRB sided with the W because the buttons were "controversial." W guests now need not worry about having their wonderland experience marred by seeing employees exercise their First Amendment rights. That rule is now precedent and can be applied to workers in labor disputes across the country.
But what happened in San Diego is nothing compared to what happened to workers in Jacksonville, Texas, just the day before. Back in 2000, the employees of a small meat-cutting department at a Jacksonville Wal-Mart voted to unionize. A week later, Wal-Mart announced that it was phasing out in-store meat-cutting departments nationwide.
It took six years for the NLRB to conclude that Wal-Mart had unlawfully retaliated against workers trying to unionize. Even then, the board disregarded the ruling of its own administrative law judge and decided that, even though Wal-Mart violated the law, it can't be ordered to restore the unionized meat department. Add up the score: Wal-Mart - 3,245 nonunion stores; union-represented workers - zero.
These are just the latest in what is now a long line of literally dozens of anti-worker NLRB decisions in recent years. The cumulative effect has been devastating, particularly in a global economy where America's corporations are cutting back health care and retirement pensions for employees, and where workers' rights are being eroded toward the lowest common denominator established by labor conditions in places like China and India.
A recent nationwide study by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Center for Urban Economic Development found that:
- 30 percent of employers fire pro-union workers.
- 49 percent of employers threaten to close a worksite when workers try to unionize.
- 82 percent of employers hire union-busting consultants to fight organizing drives.
- 91 percent of employers force employees to attend anti-union meetings one-on-one with supervisors.
"Our research clearly shows that firings, bribes and threats are pervasive," said Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development. "These actions greatly impede workers' ability to form unions."
In 1935, when Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act, it held the philosophy that protecting the right to organize helped to restore "equality of bargaining power between employers and employees" and removed "sources of industrial strife." What's more, enabling workers to unionize was seen as a practical way to help keep the economy humming along, since higher wages would increase the purchasing power of workers as consumers.
In other words, Congress saw workers' rights as good for the overall economy. Over the past several years, however, the Republican-dominated Congress and anti-worker NLRB have been motivated by a much different philosophy.
The question now shifts to where will the new Democratic majority come down on this philosophical divide? In an age of globalized economies, unions are one vehicle for workers to try and receive their fair share of the pie. President Bush can point all he wants to low unemployment and a resurgent stock market as signs of a strong economy, but the fact is most Americans don't feel so bullish. Median incomes are flat, health care costs are
soaring, pensions are being de-funded and corporate employers are threatening to shred the social contract with their employees that has prevailed for 60 years. America's workers have lost a lot of ground over the past six years, with stagnant wages and a fraying social net, even as corporations have enjoyed record profits.
Amidst the expectations unleashed by the Democrats' retaking of Congress, it should not be forgotten that America's workers have given a lot in recent years but have not received their fair share. It's past time to level the playing field.
(Adapted from an article released by the AFL-CIO)