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Labor's White Knight?




By William B. Gould IV

MIT Press x 313 pp x $35

For more than a decade, Corporate America has had virtual carte blanche concerning labor law. President Reagan's appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces the nation's labor legislation, swung the agency sharply toward management. And while the board in recent years has edged back toward the center, it still makes little effort to rein in companies that skirt the law to run roughshod over unions.

This free and easy atmosphere is likely to change dramatically if President Clinton's nominee for NLRB chairman, Stanford law professor William B. Gould IV, gets his way. In a new book, Agenda for Reform: The Future of Employment Relationships and the Law, Gould lays out an ambitious plan for revitalizing labor relations in general and the agency he has been named to head in particular. Since Clinton also has the rare chance to fill two more of the board's five seats plus the crucial NLRB General Counsel's slot, Gould will be in a good position to carry out the crackdown that he advocates on management abuses. Still, Gould is no union shill. Previously a lawyer for the United Auto Workers and a New York management law firm, he endorses several key positions supported by management.

Incorporated in Agenda for Reform is a detailed overview of how the NLRB has fared in the past decade. The board, Gould laments, has been a focus of union ire ever since Reagan appointed Donald Dotson chairman in 1983. While the agency typically sways right or left with Republican or Democratic Administrations, Dotson went much further, taking aggressively ideological stands favoring management.

Current Chairman James Stephens has been considerably less doctrinaire. But the agency has done little to stop companies from abusing NLRB rules. For instance, it's relatively easy for employers to manipulate board procedures and delay for years a vote to install a union. The 1935 Wagner Act, the nation's basic labor law, "seems wide open to abuse through delay...and ineffective remedies," writes Gould, and "is now in complete disarray."

To change that, Gould calls for strict timetables for handling cases, particularly those involving union recognition elections. He also wants the NLRB to request more court injunctions against egregious violations by employers before cases wind their way through the agency's lengthy appeals process. The NLRB sought injunctions only 142 times in 1991, he reports, compared with 309 times in 1983. Gould also wants the board to order employers to bargain with a union that gets less than 50% of the vote in a recognition election if management committed illegal practices that deprived the union of a majority.

Some of Gould's other positions will make labor less happy. He argues that unions would be more democratic if they were required to hold direct, secret-ballot elections for officers. Currently, most officers are elected by delegates to a convention, which unions argue is less costly and prevents employers from exploiting rifts among the membership. Gould also wants to lift many restrictions on what management can say to employees to defeat a union organizing drive. Presently, for instance, employers cannot hold private meetings with employees to persuade them to vote against the union.

Labor will probably be ambivalent about Gould's view on teams in the workplace. In two recent cases, one involving DuPont Co. and the other a small company called Electromation Inc., the NLRB ruled that teams set up and run by management can run afoul of the Wagner Act's ban on company

unions. Those decisions have management worried, since a growing number of companies believe that to compete globally they must use teams to involve workers in decision-making. Business groups have urged Congress to change the law, and Gould agrees. "The principal legal obstacle to labor-management cooperation is the anti-company-union" provision of the Wagner Act, he says.

Despite such promanagement positions, Gould wants to see unions revitalized. "The plight of many workers coupled with the inability of unions to represent them at the bargaining table, erodes the fabric of democratic institutions and is profoundly worrisome to all who value a system of checks and balances in the workplace," he writes. To address labor's decline, Gould believes Congress should make it easier for unions to mrganize new members. He also endorses laws that would bar employers from hiring permanent replacements during strikes because permitting this "simply does not make sense."

Gould, whose Senate confirmation vote is set for September, is unlikely to encounter much resistance from business. For one thing, many of his pro-union views require legislation, so his ability to act on them as NLRB chairman will be limited. But the board can have a tremendous effect on the hard-line antilabor tactics used in the past decade by companies such as Greyhound Corp. and The Daily News. Any executive who still believes this approach is best would be well advised to pick up a copy of Agenda for Reform.AARON BERNSTEIN

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