Labor-relations consultant Phillip Wilson has had a busy month, flying from Arizona to Virginia holding seminars and conducting online workshops to get employers ready for what he says is one of the biggest changes in labor law in decades.
The flurry of activity stems from preparations by employers across the country for National Labor Relations Board rules to speed up union organizing elections that are set to go into effect a week from today.
The regulation will simplify union-election procedures and shorten the time for balloting after employees request a vote. The compressed schedule, which may cut in half the time permitted for voting to as few as 15 days, could tilt votes in favor of unions at a time when their share of the workforce is falling, Wilson said.
“The compressed election rule is a huge change,” said Wilson, the vice president and general counsel of Labor Relations Institute Inc. in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. “It’s a dramatic new way in the way elections are held.”
Lawyers and consultants are rushing to educate employers on the new ground rules. Because they will have less time to make a case against collective bargaining, they should have arguments ready before the workers seek a vote, lawyers say.
“This is going to make elections a lot quicker and employers will have less time to communicate with workers,” said G. Roger King, an attorney with Jones Day in Columbus, Ohio, who represents companies in employment matters.
Unions argue that reducing the time to hold an election limits the ability of managers to intimidate workers.
“The rules will make the process a little freer, with less frivolous delays,” said Elizabeth Bunn, who heads organizing for the AFL-CIO, the largest American trade union federation.
Some Republicans and business groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers counter that the labor board has created “ambush elections.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has filed suit to block the rule and is awaiting a ruling from a federal judge in Washington.
“We just want a fair process, a chance for the companies to make their case,” said Michael Eastman, the chamber’s executive director for labor law policy said in an interview.
Additionally, Republican Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming sponsored a resolution of disapproval of the election rule, saying the standard leaves little time for workers and employees to learn their rights. The proposal, backed by 43 other Senate Republicans, is scheduled to be voted on tomorrow.
“The changes that are being made are going to be a big surprise for employers and employees who are caught in this net,” Enzi said today during Senate debate.
Advisers to President Barack Obama would recommend that he veto the resolution should it pass, according to a statement today from the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“The administration is committed to supporting the right of workers to join and participate in a union and bargain for fair wages, benefits and a safe workplace,” according to the statement.
The rate of union membership in the U.S. fell to a record low in 2011 for a second-straight year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The total union membership rate -- reflecting both public and private-sector workers -- was 11.8 percent, down from 11.9 percent in 2010, though the number of unionized workers went up by about 50,000, to 14.8 million.
The speedy election rule is unlikely to stop the decline of unionization rates in the U.S., Jeff Farmer, the director of organizing for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said in an interview.
“It’s a small step in the right direction,” said Farmer. “But we’re under no illusion that it will fundamentally change the equation with workers.”
Workers will still be intimidated by managers discouraging collective bargaining, said Bunn. Employers and managers will have ample time to influence the outcome in the days or weeks before the vote is held.
“Even shortening it by one day is one day that intimidation doesn’t happen,” Bunn said in an interview.
Unions win 87 percent of elections held 15 days or less after a request, a rate that falls to 58 percent when the vote takes place after 36 to 40 days, according to a February report by Bloomberg Government.
About 60 percent of the 1,706 representation elections in 2010 went in favor of unionization, according to the most recent data available from the NLRB.
Nancy Cleeland, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based agency, said 90 percent of the elections won’t be affected by the new rule, as they occur after management and unions agree to a schedule. The labor board plans to provide guidelines on the rules to its regional offices this week.
A separate rule was also scheduled to go into place April 30 which would have required employers to tell workers their labor rights on a workplace poster. An appeals court in Washington last week granted a request by employer groups to put the rule on hold until legal challenges are heard.
Wilson, who helps employers in labor strategies, said companies have little to fear if workers are content with their managers. Managers should be trained to recognize workers’ concerns and address them before support builds for a union.
“The No. 1 thing they need to do it work on the frontline supervisory group,” said Wilson. “If they’re doing a good job, they don’t have to worry about unions.”