How Business Is Winning Its War With The Nlrb

Although Big Labor's election blitz in 1996 didn't put the Democrats back in power on Capitol Hill, it did instill enough fear in lawmakers to thwart anti-union measures backed by Corporate America. But at the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces labor law, business is trouncing the unions.

Corporate America, which claims the NLRB has had a pro-union bias since William B. Gould IV became its chairman in 1994, is about to get a more employer-friendly board. In late September, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) struck a deal with the White House and Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), labor's point man in the Senate, to fill all five NLRB seats. The lone moderate Republican is leaving and two GOP hard-liners are coming aboard--J. Robert Bram III, a counsel for the Virginia Republican Party, and Peter J. Hurtgen, a pro-management labor lawyer in Miami.

LOUD CHEERS. The big concession to the Democrats: Sarah M. Fox, a former Kennedy aide, will get a seat. That bought Kennedy's support for the compromise, and the White House went along. Fox will likely replace Gould when his term expires next August because President Clinton gets to name the NLRB chair.

Business is cheering the new board, which must be confirmed by the Senate. "It will be helpful to have people who are very pro-management to counter the activist chairman," says Laurie T. Baulig of the American Trucking Assns.

The appointments would cap other successes business has had of late in getting its way with the board. Most telling is the number of court injunctions brought by the NLRB: They've fallen by half, to 53 in the past year, after tripling in Gould's first two years. Injunctions, the agency's most powerful weapon, are sought by NLRB General Counsel Fred Feinstein to enforce board rulings. "Fred blinked and bowed to the political pressure," says former GOP board member John N. Raudabaugh. Feinstein declined public comment.

Business has been trying to chip away at the NLRB's power since Gould arrived from Stanford University, where he taught labor law. The former baseball arbitrator had moved the agency toward a more impartial stance after years of probusiness rulings under Presidents Reagan and Bush. That angered business, which urged Congress in 1995 to slash the NLRB's $174 million budget by a third. Clinton balked, but the 1998 budget is still $2 million less than in 1995.

Republicans also have held hostile oversight hearings designed to undermine the agency's credibility. On Sept. 23, for example, Representative Harris W. Fawell (R-Ill.) called a surprise hearing of a labor subcommittee he chairs without inviting the NLRB. One witness was G. Roger King, a lawyer who testified as a labor-law expert. He charged Gould with appearing biased in a labor dispute at Detroit's two major dailies. The NLRB recently sought an injunction that could reverse the papers' victory over a union strike. NLRB staffers contend that King, whose law firm represents the Detroit papers, is the one who was biased. King says he disclosed his connection to the committee beforehand and had no reason to do so at the hearing.

Union officials argue that management has intimidated the board with such attacks. These hearings provide "platforms for those who have declared war on the NLRB," Washington labor lawyer David M. Silberman, testifying for the AFL-CIO, told the Fawell committee. A Fawell aide calls Labor's complaints "sour grapes."

Gould isn't out of the picture yet. He still stumps the country, promoting the need for balanced labor law. But his calls largely go unheeded. After years of grousing about that tiny agency with the huge influence, Corporate America finally seems to have the NLRB in check.

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