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How Stands the Union? | The Nation

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How Stands the Union?

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In their campaigns for the White House, the major-party candidates--even the one backed by labor--spent little time debating labor-law reform.

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Steve Early
Steve Early is the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket). Early spent many years helping...

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Nevertheless, the AFL-CIO had hoped that a Gore victory and Democratic gains in Congress would lead to strengthening of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) or, at least, union-friendly appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Continued Republican control of Congress now eliminates the possibility of the former, while Bush's court-won victory makes the latter highly unlikely. In fact, when our new President gets through filling three vacancies on the NLRB early this year, his appointees will insure that the failure of labor law--a scandal exposed in different ways by former NLRB chairman William Gould in Labored Relations and by lawyer Lance Compa in the recent Human Rights Watch report Unfair Advantage--continues to thwart union organizing for the next four years.

Since the AFL-CIO began putting greater emphasis on membership recruitment in 1995, there have, of course, been important new gains. But some of the most significant victories involved organizing campaigns in which unions used their bargaining or political clout--where they still have it--to secure recognition in new units without using Labor Board certification procedures. For tens of millions of workers in the private sector, bypassing the law is not an option--and, for better or worse, the sixty-five-year-old NLRA continues to shape organizing strategies in many key industries.

Long hailed as the "Magna Carta of American labor," the NLRA (or Wagner Act) is definitely showing signs of age. The act was designed in 1935 to promote collective bargaining as a peaceful alternative to the many violent, Depression-era battles over union recognition. Its New Deal sponsors viewed unionization as a necessary corrective to the "inequality of bargaining power" between individual workers and management. To referee workplace disputes, Congress created the NLRB, which conducts representation elections, awards bargaining rights based on them and investigates "unfair labor practices" by employers that might discourage organizing or prevent workers from negotiating a union contract.

But the limited remedies, light penalties and secret-ballot elections available under the NLRA are meaningful only if its administration is swift and efficient. In few other areas of the law is there greater truth to the axiom that "justice delayed is justice denied." When union votes are stalled for months, union victories tied up in litigation for years, bad-faith bargaining goes unpunished and fired union supporters get reinstated (if at all) long after an organizing campaign has ended, management wins--even if the board ultimately rules otherwise.

The selection of NLRB members--and the agency's influential general counsel--is determined by who controls the White House and what kind of nomination deals are brokered with the Senate. (Functioning at full strength, the board consists of three appointees, including the chairman, from the President's own party and two from the opposition party.) However, as the AFL-CIO argued in its last major campaign for labor-law reform in the late 1970s, unfair-labor-practice victims need more than a sympathetic NLRB majority or efficient functioning by the agency's 2,000 career employees around the country. The law itself must be repaired.

The enormous gap between workers' legal rights on paper and the reality of NLRA enforcement under Democrats and Republicans alike is most effectively documented in Unfair Advantage. Labored Relations also describes how bad substantive decisions, "the creakiness of the NLRA's administrative procedures" and its "lack of effective remedies" have undermined worker organizing and strike activity in recent decades. But the bulk of Gould's memoir is devoted to refighting the personal political battles that occupied him during his four and a half years as a Clinton appointee on the NLRB. Gould's book thus invites comparison with Locked in the Cabinet, Robert Reich's glibly amusing account of his stint as Clinton's Secretary of Labor. Both men assumed their Washington posts--Reich at the Labor Department and Gould at the board--after a career in academia. Even before Clinton nominated Gould in 1993, Reich had tapped him (based on his work as a Stanford University law professor and respected arbitrator) to serve on the Dunlop Commission, a panel of experts convened to recommend labor-law changes.

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