Unfriendly Relations

Bush Supporters Take Aim at Pro-Labor Board

Union lawyers make no bones about the board's recent direction. "In the last eight years the board has been decidedly pro-labor and pro-worker," said attorney Vincent Pitta, who represents hotel workers and other unions.

Viewed from the other side of the negotiating table, the board's decisions have outraged management.

Under Clinton, the NLRB has espoused "a wild, starry-eyed, liberal interpretation of the world," said Albert DeMaria, a prominent New York City management attorney and editor of the newsletter Management Report for Nonunion Organizations.

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.

Republicans vowed to rein in the board, and now, thanks to a rare alignment of the board members' five-year terms, the incoming president will have the opportunity to totally reshape the board, appointing four of the panel's five members. It's a development that has employers salivating and labor unions quaking.

"This is the biggest issue for the labor movement in terms of why they fought so hard for Gore," said Greg Tarpinian, executive director of the pro-union Labor Research Association.

"The determination of bargaining units, the length of time it takes to hear a case, handling of unfair-labor-practice complaints, all those things you would expect to start tipping in a pro-business direction," said Tarpinian.

A new pro-employer board will also have the opportunity to reverse or curb many of the Clinton board's rulings as soon as similar cases are brought to it for consideration.

Among them are those decisions that have expanded the traditional definition of employees, such as the temporary-worker, graduate-student, and medical-intern rulings.

The prospect of a new, actively pro-employer board is so unsettling to some labor leaders that one New York City union official pleaded not to be named for fear of drawing attention to board rulings that gave his union the right to organize among a group of workers previously ruled off limits.

"I don't want to make our contracts a target for some bright, ambitious young Republican lawyer with red suspenders," he said.

Beyond overturning past decisions, employers are also hoping that a new Bush board will move to hobble union political clout by aggressively enforcing past court rulings that limit the right of unions to spend dues money on politics without member approval. During his campaign, Bush called for national "paycheck protection" legislation that would compel unions to get permission from individual members for such spending.

Such a bill would face an uphill fight in Congress, where union-backed Democrats (and many Republicans) are wary. But interim steps could be taken by the NLRB without waiting for congressional action.

Unions will be looking to Democratic muscle in the equally divided Senate as their best hope to check anti-labor appointments at the board and elsewhere.

"Obviously Bush is going to go after the unions, but, thanks to the Senate, he'll have less of an effect than Reagan," said union lawyer Livingston. "There were people appointed back then who could have served on the Reichstag fire case."

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