Trade groups press NLRB to slow down union election rules

Business and labor advocates swamped the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Tuesday to battle over a plan that likely will speed up union elections.

The proposed changes to union election rules have become the latest flashpoint at the federal agency, which has attracted criticism from trade groups and Republicans for issuing a complaint against Boeing for allegedly retaliating against union workers.


Many of the critics of the Boeing complaint also are opposing the proposed election changes, arguing they will give employers little time to respond to union organizing at their worksites. Unions counter that the revisions will help eliminate delays in labor organizing that can go on for months, if not years.

“When the government holds out the promise of a fair election, it should deliver on that promise,” Elizabeth Bunn, the AFL-CIO’s organizing director, told the labor board in her testimony.

But several trade groups argued that the NLRB should slow down the new union election rules, if not scrap them altogether.

Elizabeth Milito of the National Federation of Independent Business told the labor board that the proposed rule changes would be “detrimental” to small businesses. Milito said members of her group do not have the legal resources to deal with a faster union election process.

“Our members don’t have folks like that that they could pick up and call,” Milito told board members, referring to several labor lawyers in the hearing room. “They are still going to need outside legal help to prepare for a petition.”

In June, the labor board offered a slew of changes to rules that oversee union elections. The proposed changes included allowing the electronic filing of petitions, having voters’ phone numbers and email addresses added to final voter lists and setting pre-election hearings seven days after petitions are filed.

The proposed rules are in the midst of a comment period that likely will end this fall. Business groups and Republicans have criticized the proposed changes, and Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, told reporters earlier this month that he was considering legislation to block them.

The labor board’s two-day hearing on the new union election rules attracted wide interest.

More than 60 people, ranging from business and labor circles to those from academia and law firms, were scheduled to speak to the labor board about the proposed changes. In addition, the hearing was broadcast online for the first time in the NLRB’s history.

The hearing also prompted political theatrics. On Tuesday, Americans for Job Security, a GOP-leaning group, placed a giant inflatable rat outside the labor board’s headquarters with a sign reading, “Stop worker intimidation.”

Critics of the proposed changes have compared them to the Employee Free Choice Act, which failed to pass last Congress amid heavy opposition from business. The bill would have helped labor by allowing workers to organize a union if a majority signed authorization cards stating their intent to join.

NLRB Chairwoman Wilma Liebman took issue with the comparison to the Free Choice Act, saying she didn’t see any provisions of that legislation in the proposed union election rules.

“The essence of these proposed rules [is] to make the secret-ballot election process better,” Liebman said. 

Harold Weinrich of Jackson Lewis, testifying before the board, disagreed. He said the new rules would quicken the process so much that it would diminish the chances of having “an informed electorate” in union elections.

While critics of the rules have painted them as extreme and far-reaching, proponents have described them as “modest.”

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said in an interview after Monday’s hearing that although the proposed changes are welcomed by labor, they will not drastically boost union organizing.

“It is an element. It is not a game-changer,” Henry said.

Workers said they still would appreciate the rule changes because they should cut back on delays in organizing. Veronica Tench, a hospital worker at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles and an SEIU member, told the labor board that she voted to join a union last month, but only after 13 years of seeing the election held up by delays from her employer.

“I believe that is very much needed for the workers of today,” Tench said after the hearing Monday. “Having a voice on the job will help them do that.”