Supervisory Ruling on Nurses, Union

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A federal panel's decision to classify some nurses as supervisors could have a major impact on what kinds of workers are eligible for union membership. The National Labor Relations Board said that so-called "charge nurses" in Kentucky are exempt from union eligibility because they direct other workers. Unions are challenging the decision; their appeal could wind up in the Supreme Court.


The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that a category of nurses who have specific assigning duties cannot join unions. Labor advocates say the ruling is a big blow to the union movement. They say employers could use it to try to crush organizing campaigns in other professions.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: The question sounds straightforward. Who's a supervisor? But the implications of the answer can be profound. People categorized as supervisors are part of management and don't enjoy the protection of federal labor law. That includes the right to join a union.

In today's case, the labor board ruled that permanent charge nurses who direct other nurses to care for specific patients are supervisors. Rose Ann DeMoro heads the California Nurses Association, a union. She says the decision exempts hundreds of thousands of nurses from joining unions.

Ms. ROSE ANN DEMORO (California Nurses Association): We're talking about a decision here that has a horrendous affect on registered nurses. What this does in real terms is whenever you engage in a union organizing campaign, the employer will immediately try to argue that as many nurses as possible are not eligible for collective bargaining.

LANGFITT: A majority of the labor board defined a supervisor as someone who directs other employees and uses independent judgment. But two of the board's five members disagreed. They said the definition was too expansive and could eventually exclude millions of workers from protection under the Federal Labor Relations Act.

In a dissent they wrote, quote, “today's decision threatens to create a new class of workers who have neither the genuine prerogatives of management nor the statutory rights of ordinary employees.” Nancy Schiffer agrees. She's an attorney with the AFL-CIO, the labor umbrella group.

Ms. NANCY SCHIFFER (AFL-CIO): The significance of this case is that here the board is very much broadening the definitions of supervisory status. It has a huge impact on the coverage of the act and it's consistent with what the labor board has done to continue to reduce coverage for whole groups of workers.

LANGFITT: The labor board's ruling is not expected to have a big affect soon. Nor is it clear how many workers it will actually touch. Nelson Lichtenstein says the true impact may not be known for years. Lichtenstein teaches labor history at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Professor NELSON LICHTENSTEIN (University of California Santa Barbara): We'll not immediately disenfranchise several million other kinds of knowledge workers, white collar workers. This will happen on a case by case basis. It's an invitation for more litigation, for more delay, for, you know, the labor law simply becoming a kind of morass of lawyers talking to each other over the next few decades.

LANGFITT: Businesses were generally pleased with today's decision. Stephen Bokat, an attorney for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called the board's definition of a supervisor, quote, “a reasonable standard which will be easily applied.”

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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