Unions Find Labor Relations Board Ineffective

The National Labor Relations Board is a federal agency that protects the right of workers to form unions. But many unions say the board, which is dominated by Republican appointees, actually does more harm than good. They recently demanded President Bush shut it down.

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On Wednesdays, we talk about the workplace, and today a look at the National Labor Relations Board. It's a federal agency whose job is to administer the national labor law that protects the right of workers to form unions. But many unions say the board, which is dominated by Republican appointees, actually does more harm than good. In fact, they recently demanded President Bush shut it down.

NPR's Frank Langfitt explains.

Unidentified Group: Hey, hey, ho, ho. This board has got to go. Hey, hey, ho, ho.

FRANK LANGFITT: It's a wet, chilly day of the streets of Washington D.C. and hundreds of union members are marching on the National Labor Relations Board. They're wearing rain ponchos and carrying black signs that read: NLRB, Close It Down for Renovation. The protesters can't actually make that happen, but they're trying to make a point.

Michael Ibel(ph) is a law student and staffer at the AFL-CIO, the labor umbrella group.

Mr. MICHAEL IBEL (AFL-CIO Staffer): I mean, the National Labor Relations Board decisions, especially this September roll-out of the 61 decisions, have been pretty egregious.

LANGFITT: Ibel is referring to board decisions this fall that unions say chip away at workers rights. One ruling says 30 percent of workers can demand an election to decertify a union soon after a majority of workers has signed cards saying they want one.

Jonathan Upright organized AT&T workers in North Carolina this year. He told protesters that the new ruling will make it harder to unionize.

Mr. JONATHAN UPRIGHT (Union Organizer): A minority. They could call in a vote and actually undo everything that we worked so hard to achieve over a small period of time.

LANGFITT: Another decision raises the bar for workers to collect back pay after they have been illegally fired for union activity. To get back pay, workers will now have to give evidence that they took reasonable steps to find a job after they were fired. Companies, incidentally, do not have to pay a fine when they illegally fire someone.

Nancy Schiffer is associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO.

Ms. NANCY SCHIFFER (Associate General Counsel, AFL-CIO): The average back pay award is something like $3,500. Back pay is basically considered a cost of doing business, and it's cheap. And these decisions - a whole group of these recent decisions - makes it cheaper for employers to violate the law.

LANGFITT: The Labor Board wouldn't talk to NPR about the protest, but Robert Battista, the board's chair, issued a statement. He said, quote, "I regret that certain groups have chosen the path of shrill political rhetoric over reasoned debate." Then he added: the demonstrations today were mostly about presidential politics in 2008.

Battista has a point. The unions don't want any more rulings until 2009; that's when they hope to have a Democrat in the White House, one that would appoint labor board members more sympathetic to their cause.

Josh Williams, who runs the AFL-CIO's Washington council, said as much at the rally.

Mr. JOSH WILLIAMS (AFL-CIO): Liberation day for the labor movement is following the first Monday of November 2008.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mr. WILLIAMS: And then we can take over the NLRB.

Mr. ROBERT BRAME (Former Member, National Labor Relations Board): The volume and the adjectives used by the organized labor are all out of proportion.

LANGFITT: That's Robert Brain. He's a Republican who served on the Labor Board in the late 1990s. He says union criticisms are overblown and that the current board is just correcting a past pro-labor tilt.

Mr. BRAIN: Most of these are adjustments. It's nothing like undermining the foundations of the Republic.

LANGFITT: But some scholars say the board has leaned so heavily toward employers that no one other than business has much use for its decisions. The labor movement hopes to change that beginning on election day.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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