Unfriendly Relations

Bush Supporters Take Aim at Pro-Labor Board

What meager portions of justice available to American workers over the past eight years have been found more often in the small, windowless hearing rooms of the National Labor Relations Board than in the marbled halls of congress.

Insisting it knew what was best for the country, the Clinton-Gore administration rolled over organized labor's anguished protests and joined Republicans in shepherding through congress the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade pacts, legislation that has spurred the disappearance of thousands of American jobs that paid a living wage. NAFTA alone has cost the country more than 440,000 jobs, according to the union-sponsored Economic Policy Institute.

But while overseeing such wholesale labor losses, Clinton kicked in on a retail level by restoring the much damaged NLRB to a semblance of its former self.

A thing of the past? North Carolina textile workers, aided by crucial labor board ruling, celebrate union victory in 1999.
photo: Robert Fox
A thing of the past? North Carolina textile workers, aided by crucial labor board ruling, celebrate union victory in 1999.

Now the Bush administration is expected to move quickly to reverse those reforms.

Established by the Depression-era National Labor Relations Act, the NLRB has been both savior and bane of unions over the years. The board's bland, cramped rooms are where workers seeking relief from employer wrongs wind up after their cases have finally made it to the top of the board's towering pile of complaints. Its administrative-law judges act as arbiters of basic fairness in employer-employee relations, deciding complaints of unfair labor practices and overseeing the certification of union bargaining units.

Election certification hearings were backed up so far that by the time the NLRB was able to rule, the workers who had wanted a union in the first place were long gone.

Under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush (the former), the board was headed by vocally pro-employer officials and put on a starvation diet. Its backlog of complaints filed by employees with the NLRB agency grew to more than 7000. Election certification hearings were backed up so far that by the time the board was able to rule, the workers who had wanted a union in the first place were long gone.

"We represented a group of workers seeking a union at a furniture plant in North Carolina," recalled labor lawyer Craig Livingston. "The board took four and a half years to decide; by that time all the workers had been fired."

David Prouty, attorney for the clothing workers union UNITE, represented about 600 African American women working at a drapery manufacturer in Georgia who had voted two-to-one in favor of joining the union. Shortly after the vote, the company fired 120 pro-union employees. The union asked the board for injunctive relief by reinstating the fired workers while the election went forward. "The [NLRB's] general counsel, a Bush appointee, just sat on the case; he wouldn't bring it before the board," said Prouty. Three years later, a local administrative-law judge for the board finally ruled the firings illegal, ordering nearly a million dollars in back pay.

Such firings became commonplace, union officials reported. "Labor relations seems to be the only legal practice where the client is told to break the law," said New York State AFL-CIO director Denis Hughes.

Fast-forward to the Clinton years. The appointments of a new chairman and general counsel for the agency, offered in 1993 but blocked for nearly a year by congressional Republicans, began to usher in dramatic changes. After taking office, the new appointees dusted off the board's long-unused power to win injunctions against the activities of anti-union employers; they established new priority criteria to begin reducing the agency's mountainous backlog. In major decisions rendered over the past three years, they wrenched the board into the 21st century, issuing key rulings that recognized the changing face of work today.

Last year, a board decision made it easier for temporary workers, a fast-growing segment of the nation's workforce, to unionize. Another decided that non-union employees have the right to representation when called into disciplinary meetings with the boss. The board even sent a rocket to the traditionally Democratic-friendly groves of academe, ruling that graduate teaching assistants at New York University were, in fact, employees, and thus eligible to join a union. It upheld a similar ruling that medical interns and residents were also employees, setting the stage for union organizing drives at hospitals around the country.

"Residents all over the country began looking to exercise their new rights," said Mark Levy, executive director of the Committee of Interns and Residents. Managers at two health care institutions voluntarily agreed to recognize the union, reported Levy. "In the past the employer wouldn't have even had to talk to us."

In one of the most dramatic examples of redressing old grievances, the board issued an order against one of the most recalcitrant and anti-union Southern textile firms, Fieldcrest Cannon, which had successfully frustrated 25 years of union organizing efforts. Giving the union unprecedented access to company property in an effort to assure a fair election, the board ordered the firm to allow the union, UNITE, to use the employee bulletin board and visit the break room. In another shift from past practice, the board let the union address workers on company property immediately following mandatory anti-union meetings held by employers. The board also ordered that the election—later won by the union—be held off company grounds to make sure voting was free of intimidation.

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