Clarification: NLRB nominee Craig Becker has written that in National Labor Relations Board proceedings related to unionizing, where a union or workers file for a “Board election”in order to form or dissolve a union, there is nothing in the National Labor Relations Act which compels the NLRB’s current policy, which is to permit the employer to be an active participant either favoring, opposing or even obstructing such an election. However, The Nation wishes to make it clear that Becker has never advocated that employers be prevented from participating in other NLRB proceedings, such as those involving alleged unfair labor practices, nor that employers be forbidden from exercising their “free speech” right to oppose union drives. Becker has made it clear that employers should retain the right to protect their legitimate interests before the NLRB.
A pitched battle is taking place behind closed doors over the Obama administration’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It’s unfortunate that the conflict has avoided the glare of the public spotlight, because the outcome of this partisan skirmish may be more important than that over the labor movement’s number-one legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).
This fight is clearly ideological, pitting progressives and liberals against conservatives, including conservatives within the Democratic Party. But the conservatives have been more vigilant, mobilizing their opposition, while the White House, lacking sufficient pressure from either labor unions or their progressive allies, or from Congressional Democrats busy fighting over healthcare, has been content to avoid any additional bruising conflict.
In keeping with organized labor’s wishes, President Obama has nominated two Democrats and one Republican to join the two sitting members, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, on the five-member NLRB. If these nominations are approved by majority vote in the Senate, the NLRB will be controlled by labor-friendly Democrats for the first time since the Clinton administration.
To understand what is at stake, it’s necessary to understand the potential power of the NLRB, a little-known administrative agency with broad authority over labor matters. The president appoints and the Senate confirms members to this body, and an NLRB on which Obama appointees constitute a majority could overturn a number of key decisions issued by the Bush administration-appointed board. Most legal scholars and labor experts believe that the NLRB has the authority to enact procedural changes that could, among other things:
• drastically shorten the time frame for holding union elections;
• eliminate cumbersome pre-election procedures that allow employers to dispute who is eligible to vote in such elections;
• require the employer to turn over employee names, addresses and phone numbers early in any union organizing drive;
• require equal access to both workers and the workplace for unions during campaigns; and
• increase the penalties on companies that violate their workers’ legal rights.
The NLRB even could make it easier for workers to unionize based on a card check showing of majority support–just as the EFCA would. It could force employers to recognize a union as the representative of its employees so long as a neutral third party verified that more than 50 percent of those employees had signed a written statement expressing a desire to be represented by that union. That’s a fairer way for workers to become unionized than the current cumbersome and flawed NLRB election process, which is often abused by employers who threaten retaliation against their workers.
The Democrats appointed by President Obama have considerable skin in the game. The sitting Democrat, Wilma Liebman, formerly with the Bricklayers and Teamsters unions, is a longtime hero to organized labor for her eloquent dissents from numerous antilabor decisions issued by the Bush-appointed board. Mark Pearce, one of Obama’s current appointees, also is a longtime union advocate.