June 21 (Bloomberg) -- Companies would have less time and opportunity to block unions under a proposed U.S. rule that would speed voting in labor elections.
The proposed rule issued today by the National Labor Relations Board, an agency that investigates unfair labor practices, would bring changes sought by unions, such as faster hearing deadlines and streamlined procedures.
The push for quicker elections is a victory for unions after defeats at the hands of Republican governors seeking to curb public-employee unions. It’s also a sign of the NLRB’s pro-labor bent since President Barack Obama’s appointees have become a majority, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“We knew it was only a matter of time before the administration used the regulatory process to tilt the playing field in organized labor’s favor,” Michael Eastman, executive director of labor-law policy with the Chamber in Washington, the nation’s largest business lobbying group, said in an e-mail.
The NLRB said in a statement that its proposal would eliminate “unnecessary barriers,” reduce litigation and consolidate the review of challenges. “Resolving representation questions quickly, fairly and accurately has been an overriding goal of American labor law for more than 75 years,” NLRB Chairman Wilma Liebman said today in a statement.
The NLRB’s rule may have a broader effect than a complaint filed by its general counsel in April that said Boeing Co., the world’s largest aerospace company, improperly retaliated against union workers in Washington state by opening a non-union plant in South Carolina. The Chicago-based company has denied such a motivation for adding the plant, and Republican lawmakers have said they may move to cut off the agency’s funding.
“This is likely to be a huge controversy, such as it’s become with Boeing,” Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California in Santa Barbara and head of its center that studies labor issues, said in an interview. The change will be only “moderately useful to the unions,” he said.
The NLRB conducted 1,633 union-representation elections in the year ended Sept. 30, 2009, the most recent period posted on the agency’s website. Of cases closed in the period, employees chose to join a union in 64 percent of the votes.
The proposed rule may staunch a decline in union membership, according to Peter Schaumber, a former NLRB member chairman appointed by President George W. Bush.
“It will give them a better chance of winning elections,” Schaumber said in an e-mail.
Union membership in the U.S. fell to 11.9 percent of the workforce last year, from 12.3 percent in 2009, the Labor Department said in January. Representation by unions has fallen since the agency began collecting data in 1983, when 20.1 percent of the workforce was organized.
The NLRB said it intends to hold a public hearing on the proposed election rules on July 18 and July 19 in Washington.
Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker is among Republicans who have moved to rein in government workers’ unions this year. Walker won legislation in March that requires annual recertification votes by a majority of all members for public-employees union representation and makes payment of membership dues voluntary. Firefighters and police officers are exempt.
Cullen Werwie, Walker’s spokesman, and Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the NLRB decision.
“If we want to create jobs and a vibrant economy, we need policies that will foster growth, not stifle it,” Lane Wright, a spokesman for Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott, said in an e-mailed statement.
Among changes proposed by the NLRB are permitting electronic filing of petitions, deferring “litigation of most voter eligibility issues until after the election” and consolidating appeals to the board “into a single post-election appeals process,” the agency said in the statement.
Unions say companies delay elections to gain time to pressure workers.
“Too many workers have seen their efforts to join together on the job defeated by costly litigation and delaying tactics by their employer,” Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said in a statement.
The proposed rule will force elections “in 10 to 21 days after the filing” of a petition to create a union, according to Brian Hayes, the NLRB’s only Republican member and the dissenter in a 3-1 vote on the planned changes.
Deadlines that tight will “effectively eviscerate an employer’s legitimate opportunity to express its views about collective bargaining,” Hayes wrote in his dissent.
The median time for a union election is now 38 days from petition to the vote, according to the NLRB.
The proposal will help level the playing field between management and labor, Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor-education research at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, said in an interview.
“Employers are emboldened and feel they can do whatever they want and can declare war on workers when they try to organize,” Bronfenbrenner said in an interview. “There’s going to be a huge reaction” to the NLRB’s proposal, she said.
Unions have sought NLRB action to speed elections since losing their fight in Congress for “card-check” legislation. The measure, backed by Obama, would have let workers form a union without an election if a majority of employees signed cards backing the move. While companies now can permit the card-check procedure, most demand elections.
The NLRB issued its proposal a day after the U.S. Labor Department proposed requiring companies to make more detailed disclosures about consultants hired to help counter union organizing. Currently, employers have to provide that information only if the consultants contact employees directly.
“The proposed rules by the Labor Department and NLRB, coming one day apart, are an attempt to give unions the upper hand by limiting the ability of employers to exercise their free speech rights,” Eastman of the Chamber said.
The NLRB rule “would help give workers the same ability to bargain for wages and benefits now enjoyed by CEOs, whose pay has skyrocketed while their employees continue to struggle,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said in a statement.
Representative John Kline, a Republican from Minnesota, said in a statement that “the Obama NLRB continues to push an activist agenda at the expense of our nation’s workforce.”
Unions have said Obama, elected with their support, hasn’t done enough to back their goals and the enthusiasm of members has waned as he faces re-election next year.
“It will be more challenging this time than it was last time to motivate our members,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, said in a June 1 interview.
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