Bush NLRB allowed decert via card-check

Related video: "Employee Forced Choice Act"
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New adminstration will put an end to worker empowerment v. coercive union officials

The push by organized labor to sidestep the secret ballot and instead establish unions by collecting worker signatures already promises to be one of the hottest political issues of 2009. President-elect Barack Obama, who was elected with strong labor support, has promised to fight for the “card check” signature system, and conservatives have made it clear that they are drawing a line in the sand against that change.

On this issue, the Democrats and labor are wrong. There’s no secret why they seek the change —- it would make union organizing easier. But allowing formation of unions through the gathering of signatures rather than the secret ballot also would expose workers to unfair and unnecessary intimidation, in some cases all but forcing them to take stances against their better judgment. That’s hard to justify.

Related video: "Employee Forced Choice Act"

That said, there’s a lot more to the story.

For the past eight years, the Bush administration has worked diligently to defang agencies created to protect workers, consumers, patients, investors, the environment, etc. The consequence of that deregulatory approach has been felt most directly and obviously in the financial system, where the Bush administration’s reluctance to regulate Wall Street contributed significantly to the collapse now sending the economy into a deep recession. But that’s just one example of a pattern across the federal bureaucracy.

At the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the number of inspectors was cut from 605 in 2002 to 496 in 2006 even as mining increased; enforcement and fines were cut back significantly. At the Environmental Protection Agency, enforcement actions and fines against polluters also have been drastically reduced as staff is discouraged from confronting business. Enforcement also has been cut at the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in favor of “voluntary compliance,” the same approach that regulators took to Wall Street.

And as the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission now acknowledges, the financial upheaval has “made it absolutely clear that voluntary regulation does not work” and that the concept “was fundamentally flawed from the beginning.”

Something similar took place at the National Labor Relations Board, the agency created to ensure a fair playing field between labor and management. Under the Bush administration and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the NLRB consistently and single-mindedly has taken the side of management against labor, in many cases overturning precedents that are decades old. Labor has understandably concluded that the system is stacked against it. In one case last year involving a nursing home, for example, the board allowed an existing union to be decertified not through secret ballot, but through a petition signed by a majority of nursing home employees.

While that was a significant change in the NLRB’s previous practice, it also casts the card-check issue in a whole new light. Conservatives argue- somewhat correctly - that it is a violation of the democratic process and all that is true and good about America if you abandon the secret ballot and try to create a union through collecting signatures. Yet somehow, they deem it legal, acceptable and proper to decertify a union by that same illegitimate means.

As the Bush administration exits, a lot of scandals are going to bubble up out of the bureaucracy about favors done, rules ignored, employees intimidated, etc., on behalf of industry and other special interests. And people and groups that have been on the losing end for eight years are eager for retribution.

Natural as that sentiment might be, it’s a bad way to run government. The goal of the Obama administration should be to correct inequities, not create new ones. A new labor secretary, a revamped labor-relations board - the five-member panel has three vacancies - and a new commitment to applying the law fairly and reforming it where needed can go a long way toward correcting inequities that the card-check system is supposed to fix.

- Jay Bookman


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