Bush's Other War

At the national labor relations board, the president's appointees change the rules

Faced with union drives, 25 percent of employers fire at least one worker for organizing activity, while half of employers threaten to relocate their businesses or call immigration authorities, according to a 2000 study by Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor research at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

"If you're fired, there is really no penalty for the employer," said Bonior. "You may be hired back, but that's about the worst penalty. There are no mean- ingful sanctions."

Under President Clinton, the board took a small step toward correcting situations in which employers egregiously violate the law, by allowing unions access to workers on site, and giving them the ability to place notices on bulletin boards. In June, the new Bush majority rejected those remedies, stating that a simple posting of the board's cease-and-desist order was sufficient.

Union labor: Up against the board
photo: Rick Kopstein
Union labor: Up against the board

Organized labor usually tries not to antagonize the board, regardless of its political makeup, since its members carry so much clout. But this August, the executive council of the AFL-CIO rolled out some of the harshest rhetoric heard in years, stating that the NLRB "has entered one of the most shameful chapters in its 69-year history" and had been "perverted into a dangerous enemy of workers' rights."

Despite some early flirtations by some labor leaders with the Bush administration, most union officials got the message when the president—citing security precautions—stripped some 200,000 workers at the new Department of Homeland Security of collective bargaining rights. The move undid years of union organizing work at JFK International Airport, where 75 percent of airport security workers had signed cards saying they wanted to be represented by the American Federation of Government Employees.

"As a New Yorker who saw how unions responded to the tragedy of 9-11, I think that is the one that gets people most agitated," said Jeff Grabelsky, a labor economist at the Cornell School. "Union members had a heroic response to the attack, and then, with a stroke of the pen, they lost the right to organize. To me, it's the equivalent of Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers."

As a kind of goal-line stand against that trend, union officials this year got congressional supporters to introduce the first new labor legislation in years that would significantly lower the bar for union recognition. Called the Employee Free Choice Act, it would guarantee workers the right to choose unions via card checks, provide arbitration for first contract disputes, and increase penalties for violations. Despite its 31 Senate sponsors and 207 in the House, the bill has little chance of passage. But it has become something of a rallying cry for labor and has been backed by the Kerry-Edwards ticket.

At the same time, the campaign is labor's main focus. The AFL-CIO has committed $45 million to the effort to oust Republicans from the White House; the Service Employees International Union is spending $65 million; and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is putting $48 million into the race.

"There is so much at stake," said Bonior, the former congressman. "All these things they've done are so central to the Republican political agenda."

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