Rage against the NLRB

What bizarre times these are in U.S. labor politics. Pragmatic agreements between unions and companies are greeted as evidence of government misdeeds, and a law that provides the weakest protection for workplace rights in the developed world is under attack for being a tool of “Big Labor,” which is itself struggling to survive.

Two events in the past week illustrate these developments: the GOP’s intensified attacks on the NLRB in the wake of the settlement of the Boeing dispute, and a multimillion-dollar media campaign to promote Senator Orrin Hatch’s anti-union Employee Rights Act.

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Anyone who believed that the NLRB’s decision to drop its controversial complaint against Boeing for illegally retaliating against its union workers would end the GOP assault on the Board will have been greatly disappointed. Indeed, precisely the opposite has happened. Representative Daryl Issa, chair of the House Oversight Committee, announced last week that he is planning to step up his now several months old witch-hunt against the agency.

Never mind that the GOP has vowed to block President Obama’s two new nominees to the NLRB — both eminently qualified — which will soon lack a quorum. Issa is seeking evidence that the Board issued the complaint in order to strengthen the Machinists’ hand in collective bargaining with Boeing. The agency’s mandate to enforce the law appears lost on him, as does the Acting General Counsel’s yearlong effort to encourage the parties to reach a settlement before issuing the complaint.

The GOP’s ongoing rage against the NLRB, which is now weaker than at any time in its seventy-six year history, must be put in broader context:  As a result of having a system that places more obstacles in the path of workers who seek to form unions than does that of any other developed democracy in the world, the U.S. now has fewer than 13% of the workforce covered by collective bargaining agreements. In most northern European countries, whose unemployment rate is significantly lower than that of the U.S., the figure is between 80-90%. In countries like Austria (4.1% unemployment), it is close to 100%. Workers in these countries enjoy rights that U.S. workers could barely dream of.

So what is the Republican prescription for this worsening crisis in workplace representation? Weaken labor rights even further. Instead of attempting to create new jobs for American workers, the GOP seems intent on diminishing the quality of the jobs they already have.

Last week, the anti-union lobbying group, Center for Union Facts, announced the launch of a $10 million ad campaign in support of Senator Orrin Hatch’s Employee Relations Act, first introduced in August 2011. Tim Scott introduced identical legislation in the House. Hatch’s bill would, among other things, outlaw voluntary recognition agreements between employers and unions, mandate lengthy delay in certification elections, and require unions to win new NLRB elections every 3 years after an initial election victory.

So long as the Democrats retain control of the Senate, Hatch’s bill will never be voted on. And so long as they retain control of the White House, it will never be signed into law. Even some Republicans will refuse to support the extreme measure. The bill is clearly more a message rather than a serious attempt at legislation. Of course, if 2012 goes very, very badly for the Democrats, all bets are off, and even Hatch’s radical bill could become law.

So what’s the point of this $10 million publicity charade? Many of the issues contained in the bill – further obstacles in the path of unionization, mandatory recertification, and “paycheck protection” – are red meat issues for the anti-union right. The bill collects those threads of recent anti-union attacks that might get the best traction for fund-raising purposes. It’s good for rallying the troops and good for opening their checkbooks.

Orrin Hatch, one of the nation’s pre-eminent opponents of workers’ rights, introduces a bill designed to eviscerate already pathetically weak workplace rights, and a corporate-funded, extreme anti-union lobbying organization spends $10 million to promote the bill.  The GOP and the Center for Union Facts claim that they are acting in the best interests of workers who are oppressed by Union Bosses.

If this disingenuous legislation isn’t Labor Law for the 1%, then nothing is.


Logan is Professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.