Beyond the Reach of Republicans?

The Democratic majority on the National Labor Relations Board could soon make it easier for unions to recruit members

Business groups may find the expanded ranks of Republican allies in Congress won't be able to stop Democratic appointees from making it easier for unions to recruit members.

The Democratic majority on the National Labor Relations Board could soon rule on cases that would give unions greater access to company property for organizing drives. The board may also push for speedier elections after workers petition for a vote, limiting companies' ability to muster a defense. "What people wrongly assume is that, with the Republicans taking over the House, there won't be labor and employment regulation that's adverse to business," says Garry G. Mathiason, a labor lawyer with Littler Mendelson in San Francisco who represents employers. "That couldn't be more wrong. The Obama Administration will greatly influence things through the regulatory process."

The NLRB, whose mission is to remedy unfair labor practices and certify union elections in businesses, is led by Craig Becker, a former lawyer for the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO. After Republicans and business groups opposed Becker's nomination, President Obama named him through a recess appointment that expires at the end of this year. There are four people now on the five-member board: three Democrats and one Republican.

Business groups cite several moves last year as justifying their concerns about what they see as the board's tilt toward labor. In November the board's regional office in Hartford challenged a company for dismissing an employee who criticized her employer on Facebook. In a 3-2 decision in September, the board upheld the rights of unions to set up protest banners outside companies. "The concern in the employer community is that the pendulum is going to swing far to the other side," says Michael Eastman, executive director of labor law policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Employers may also see new rules on worker safety and steeper fines for violations. Officials with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration say they're taking stronger steps to reduce injuries and illness in the workplace.

Under changes that took effect in October, penalties for safety violations classified as serious will rise to about $3,000 to $4,000 from about $1,000. A serious violation includes those where a hazard could lead to death or major injury.

Labor leaders, disappointed that Obama and Democrats in Congress failed last year to deliver card-check legislation that would have made it easier for unions to organize, say they are counting on regulatory action instead.

"After eight years of an Administration that deregulated our economy and gave Wall Street...and other abusers free rein, President Obama is bringing balance back to our economy and holding corporations accountable," said AFL-CIO spokesman Josh Goldstein in an e-mail.

The analyst's take: The NLRB's political makeup correlates with changes in union membership, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Since 1960, union membership declined an average of 2.3 percent a year when Republicans held the board's majority. With Democrats in the NLRB majority, union membership declined less, at 1.5 percent a year.

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