Extremism will be GOP’s undoing

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It is a pity that it took so long to reach an agreement that could have prevented a protracted dispute, and an even greater pity that this won’t stop GOP attempts to inflict damage on the NLRB and, by association, the Obama Administration.

Second, last Wednesday, the NLRB voted 2-1 in support of a new rule designed to get rid of the worst cases of delay in union certification elections. The rule was first proposed in June, and has been the subject of extensive public hearings and comments. Until the day of the vote, the rule was in doubt, as far-right groups and Republican politicians – who are now difficult to distinguish on labor issues – had encouraged the sole GOP appointee to resign in order to deny the Board a quorum.

Although a scaled-backed version of the original proposal, the election rule – which will reduce unnecessary and unjustified pre-election litigation – is much needed and long overdue. Research has documented that longer elections produce more illegal practices, and that union avoidance consultants advise employers to use delaying tactics to undermine employee choice. Despite Republican hysteria over the vote, moreover, the rule is a modest measure that will make scant difference to the employer-dominated system of union certification.

But this reality has no role in the GOP’s worldview on labor rights.

Instead, Republicans have pointed to the “draconian” election rule as evidence that Obama and “Big Labor” are joined at the hip. In reality, the
NLRB functions independently from the White House – which did not welcome the Boeing controversy – and unions have been disappointed by the Administration’s legislative achievements.

Third, in a more-or-less straight party line vote, the House passed by 235-188 Representative John Kline’s “Workforce Democracy and Fairness Act” (H.R. 3094), which would undo the streamlined election rule, thus ensuring that employers are able to use dilatory tactics to undermine employee free choice, and place other obstacles in the path of employees seeking to form unions. Kline says his bill protects workers’ choice, but it would promote frivolous litigation and ensure election delay. The bill lays bare the extremism of the GOP on labor rights.

To put the GOP’s rage in context: Figures released today by the Bureau of National Affairs show that in the first half of 2011, fewer than 29,000 workers gained union recognition through NLRB elections. Fewer than half of those workers will get a collective bargaining agreement within 12 months, as employer opposition often continues after a union election victory. That means that, in a labor force of over 140 million, well under
15,000 workers will get a collective agreement as a result of going through the NLRB election process in the first half of 2011.

Thus, the GOP has spent much of 2011 lambasting a government agency – almost 50 bills, hearings, and subpoenas targeting the NLRB so far – that has been all-but-abandoned by unions because the election process is so heavily weighted against them.

Labor rights rarely play a central role in U.S. politics. Yet, as indicated by events in Ohio and Wisconsin, the GOP may yet regret its anti-union overreach. True, in an environment of hostility towards government, its attack on an “out of control” federal agency that enforces labor law is a smarter strategy than an assault on collective bargaining itself.

But Republican hysteria over the NLRB – watch the floor debate on H.R. 3094 if you doubt the appropriateness of that description – provides an indication of the kind of extremism that may be its undoing in 2012.

Not so long ago, prominent Republicans supported fundamental labor rights. President Eisenhower stated famously: “Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

Today’s GOP would do well to heed his advice.

John Logan is Professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. Between 2000-2008 he taught in the School of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science.