Labor Board Decision May Slash Union Membership

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that nurses with certain responsibilities are supervisors, and therefore barred from joining unions. Labor organizers say the ruling could cut the potential union membership among nurses by hundreds of thousands.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

On Wednesday, our business report focuses on the workplace. Today, we look at a ruling that could affect workers across the economy.

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that nurses with certain responsibilities are supervisors and barred from joining unions. Labor organizers say the ruling could cut the potential union membership among nurses by hundreds of thousands. That could have wider implications.

Frank Langfitt, NPR's labor reporter, is here to explain. Good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT: Good morning.

AMOS: What did the board actually say?

LANGFITT: Well, they were focusing on a Michigan hospital case. And the question there was who is actually a supervisor? And what they ended up saying is that charge nurses who use their independent judgment to assign other nurses to care for specific patients in fact are supervisors, and therefore, of course, they're management. And so they don't have any protection under the National Labor Relations Act. And probably most significantly, they have no right to join or form a union.

AMOS: So, who exactly does this affect?

LANGFITT: Well, that's the big question. You know, if you talk to the California Nurses Association - they're a union - they say it'll prevent hundreds of thousands of nurses from being able to organize. But others who follow labor think that the impact will be a lot greater than that.

They say this definition of a supervisor - particularly focusing on directing other employees and using independent judgment - could be extended to all kinds of jobs. Like construction workers, chefs, electricians, social workers.

Now, the three members of the board who voted for this refined definition, they said it was not a sea change in labor law. But there were two members who voted against it, and they called this one of the most important decisions in the board's history. And they said it could affect millions of workers.

I want to read you something from the decision that came out yesterday. They say today's decision threatens to create a new class of worker under federal law: workers who will not have the genuine prerogatives of management nor the statutory rights of ordinary employees.

AMOS: Now, does this happen right away, or...

LANGFITT: No. No.

AMOS: ...or is there...

LANGFITT: This is going to play out over many years - first, probably among nurses, but also in other job sectors. And as unions organize, they expect some employers are going to try to use this against them to try to limit how many people they can organize in unions.

One labor professor I was talking to yesterday predicted that some businesses are going to rewrite their job descriptions to fit this new definition of a supervisor so they can reduce the potential number of union members.

And the question of who's a supervisor is probably going to end up back in front of the National Labor Relations Board, and probably drag on in the courts for a long time. And that delay ultimately helps employers. You know, the longer it takes to certify a bargaining unit or win an election, the more likely that people who want to join a union are going to lose confidence in the organizers and lose interest.

AMOS: Thanks very much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it.

AMOS: NPR's labor reporter Frank Langfitt.

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