NYT: Crippling the Right to Organize

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Crippling the Right to Organize

By WILLIAM B. GOULD IV

Published: December 17, 2011

Stanford, Calif.
Curtis Jinkins

UNLESS something changes in Washington, American workers will, on New Year’s Day, effectively lose their right to be represented by a union. Two of the five seats on theNational Labor Relations Board, which protects collective bargaining, are vacant, and on Dec. 31, the term ofCraig Becker, a labor lawyer whomPresident Obama named to the board last year through arecess appointment, will expire. Without a quorum, the Supreme Court ruled last year, the board cannot decide cases.

What would this mean?

Workers illegally fired for union organizing won’t be reinstated with back pay. Employers will be able to get away with interfering with union elections. Perhaps most important, employers won’t have to recognize unions despite a majority vote by workers. Without the board to enforce labor law, most companies will not voluntarily deal with unions.

If this nightmare comes to pass, it will represent the culmination of three decades of Republican resistance to the board — an unwillingness to recognize the fundamental right of workers to band together, if they wish, to seek better pay and working conditions. But Mr. Obama is also partly to blame; in trying to install partisan stalwarts on the board, as his predecessors did, he is all but guaranteeing that the impasse will continue. On Wednesday, he announced his intention to nominate two pro-union lawyers to the board, though there is no realistic chance that either can gain Senate confirmation anytime soon.

For decades after its creation in 1935, the board was a relatively fair arbiter between labor and capital. It has protected workers’ right to organize by, among other things, overseeing elections that decide on union representation. Employers may not engage in unfair labor practices, like intimidating organizers and discriminating against union members. Unions are prohibited, too, from doing things like improperly pressuring workers to join.

The system began to run into trouble in the 1970s. Employers found loopholes that enabled them to delay the board’s administrative proceedings, sometimes for years. Reforms intended to speed up the board’s resolution of disputes have repeatedly foundered in Congress.

The precipitous decline of organized labor — principally a result of economic forces, not legal ones — cemented unions’ dependence on the board, despite its imperfections. Meanwhile, business interests, represented by an increasingly conservative Republican Party, became more assertive in fighting unions.

The board became dysfunctional. Traditionally, members were career civil servants or distinguished lawyers and academics from across the country. But starting in the Reagan era, the board’s composition began to tilt toward Washington insiders like former Congressional staff members and former lobbyists.

Starting with a compromise that allowed my confirmation in 1994, the board’s members and general counsel have been nominated in groups. In contrast to the old system, the new “batching” meant that nominees were named as a package acceptable to both parties. As a result, the board came to be filled with rigid ideologues. Some didn’t even have a background in labor law.

Under President George W. Bush, the board all but stopped using its discretion to obtain court orders against employers before the board’s own, convoluted, administrative process was completed — a power that, used fairly, is a crucial protection for workers. In 2007, in what has been called the September Massacre, the board issued rulings that made it easier for employers to block union organizing and harder for illegally fired employees to collect back pay. Democratic senators then blocked Mr. Bush from making recess appointments to the board, as President Bill Clinton had done. For 27 months, until March 2010, the board operated with only two members; in June 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that it needed at least three to issue decisions.

Under Mr. Obama, the board has begun to take enforcement more seriously, by pursuing the court orders that the board under Mr. Bush had abandoned. Sadly, though, the board has also been plagued by unnecessary controversy. In April, the acting general counselissued a complaint over Boeing’s decision to build airplanes at a nonunion plant in South Carolina, following a dispute with Boeing machinists in Washington State. Although the complaint was dropped last week after the machinists reached a new contract agreement with Boeing, the controversy reignited Republican threats to cut financing for the board.

In my view, the complaint against Boeing was legally flawed, but the threats to cut the board’s budget represent unacceptable political interference. The shenanigans continue: last month, before the board tentatively approved new proposals that would expedite unionization elections, the sole Republican member threatened to resign, which would have again deprived the board of a quorum.

Mr. Obama needs to make this an election-year issue; if the board goes dark in January, he should draw attention to Congressional obstructionism during the campaign and defend the board’s role in protecting employees and employers. A new vision for labor-management cooperation must include not only a more powerful board, but also a less partisan one, with members who are independent and neutral experts. Otherwise, the partisan morass will continue, and American workers will suffer.

William B. Gould IV, a law professor at Stanford, was chairman of the National Labor Relations Board from 1994 to 1998.

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