Unions make mountain out of NLRB molehill

When workers marched recently on the National Labor Relations Board in Washington and 19 regional offices to demand the board "close down for renovations," it appeared to some a frivolous exercise. Labor board Chairman Robert Battista said the protests were little more than "shrill political rhetoric" aimed at presidential politics next year.

But to a labor movement still reeling from decades of decline but now trying to flex its muscles again, the protests late last week were quite serious.

Union leaders believe that many of their problems result from restrictions on the formation of unions because of NLRB rulings during the Bush administration. Their ire reached the boiling point this fall, when the board handed down 61 decisions. Unions say three of the worst rulings would:

— Make it easier to disband a union in a workplace.

— Allow employers to discriminate against union supporters in hiring.

— Let companies avoid giving back pay to workers who were fired illegally for trying to form a union.

"The NLRB has absolutely rolled back workers' rights at every turn," says Lane Windham, chief spokeswoman for the 10 million-member AFL-CIO.

Labor's foes don't buy it.

Unions ought to look within to understand their declining membership, contends Randy Johnson, vice president for labor at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has 3 million member businesses.

"They ought to be looking at whether their message really appeals to workers or not," Johnson says. "The National Labor Relations Act has been unchanged basically since 1947. … These few decisions the unions look at are making a mountain out of a molehill."

The National Labor Relations Board is important because its rulings set precedents and the tone for labor-management relations on disputes over discipline, firings, attempts to form unions and other issues.

Next month, the terms of three of the board's five members will expire, and labor is pushing for Congress to reject any appointments President George W. Bush makes. Bush will never allow a "balanced" board, labor says, and a non-functioning board would do less harm. The unionized portion of the work force has plummeted from 35 percent in the mid-1950s to 12 percent now, and in the private sector stands below 8 percent.

Bob Soutier was among about 50 union advocates who rallied outside the NLRB office in St. Louis last week. He was elected this week to a new four-year term as president of the 100,000-member St. Louis Labor Council. Union representation in the St. Louis area has remained steady at about 22 percent, double the national average, but Soutier worries about the national trends that have hurt labor's clout and numbers.

"I'm especially troubled by the rulings," Soutier said. "The NLRB for years has been slanted in the employers' interests, but never as much as it is now."

Jerry Hunter, a law partner at Bryan Cave in St. Louis and the former general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board under the first President George Bush, doesn't agree that the board is the source of labor's woes.

"Part of this is the frustration by the unions over the whole issue of how do they increase their representation in the private sector workplace," he said.

Labor has been stung by globalization and by the ability of companies to outsource work to third world countries where there is a lack of unions. At the same time, many experts say, practices of American employers and policies of the U.S. government have made it harder for unions to organize.

"The intensity of opposition to unionization which is exhibited by American employers has no parallel in the western industrial world," says Theodore St. Antoine, law professor and former dean of the University of Michigan Law School. Antoine also served as president of the National Academy of Arbitrators.


Others see the NLRB rulings as a natural part of the nation's political ebb and flow.

"You're going to have periods of time when it's going to be perceived that the board is more pro-union, and there's going to be times that the board is going to be perceived as less union-friendly," said Brad Jones, state director for Missouri of the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation's largest group for small and medium businesses with 10,000 member businesses in Missouri. "Perhaps it's more of a pro-business NLRB now, but that pendulum swings back and forth all the time."

Kim Maisch, state director in Illinois for the National Federation of Independent Business, with 11,000 member firms, says labor's strength in the state makes her unsympathetic to the national complaints.

"We're in a state right now controlled by one party that favors labor," she said. "And so here in Illinois, they're busting down the workplace door and trying to take over."

Beth Spencer, spokeswoman for the one million-member Illinois AFL-CIO, accepts only a fraction of that reasoning.

"Certainly here in Illinois we do have a labor-friendly General Assembly and governor," he said. "But this is a national issue and a federal agency. And the fact of the matter is this board is favorable toward the Republicans and big business."


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