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The Rush To Squash A Promising Union Tactic

Labor's growing use of card-check drives has kicked off a fierce political controversy. This spring, Democrats have introduced bills into Congress that would vastly expand the union organizing tactic. Several Republicans have snapped back with legislation to outlaw it. While nothing is likely to pass before the November elections, more immediate action could come out of a battle brewing inside the five-member National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the judicial body that oversees federal labor law.

In an unusual step, the three Republicans on the board voted in mid-June to hear a challenge to card-check deals between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and two auto-parts makers, Dana Corp. (DCN) and Metaldyne Corp. Over the objections of their two Democratic colleagues, the majority has decided to call into question the very concept of employers voluntarily recognizing a union without an NLRB-supervised election.

While the case wouldn't actually outlaw card checks, the majority made it clear that they have serious doubts about the idea. "The secret-ballot election remains the best method for determining whether employees desire union representation," they wrote in their June 7 order calling for briefs on the issue. Unions and companies submitted briefs on July 15, though there's no deadline for the board to rule. The NLRB declined to comment.

The cases involve workers at Dana and Metaldyne plants who demanded formal NLRB elections after the companies and the UAW had agreed to card checks in 2002 and 2003. The workers got support from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a gadfly anti-union group that has been battling card-recognition deals around the country for several years. NLRB regional directors rejected their requests, saying card checks have been legal since the 1935 National Labor Relations Act laid out modern labor law. But the GOP board members overruled them, saying the rise of card signups warrants the extraordinary step of questioning long-standing precedent.

The majority, made up of Chairman Robert J. Battista, Peter C. Schaumber, and Ronald E. Meisburg, run the risk of appearing to inflame an already highly charged issue, union lawyers say. For one thing, the vote split along party lines, politicizing the case. More unusual, the majority insisted on hearing from all interested parties in six weeks -- an uncharacteristic hurry for an agency whose cases often drag on for years. The Republicans even rejected a request for an extension by the board's own general counsel. Labor officials charge that they're rushing because Meisburg is a recess appointee whose term expires when Congress goes out of session for the November Presidential elections. If likely Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) wins, he would be able to appoint a Democrat and derail the GOP majority.

Either way, the case has split Corporate America. Dana, Metaldyne, and the Big Three auto makers all filed briefs supporting card checks, as did other unionized employers such as Liz Claiborne (LIZ), Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, and Lear (LEA). Opposing briefs have come from business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, which, oddly enough, counts most of the auto makers and their suppliers among its members.

By Aaron Bernstein in Washington

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