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Breaking the Unions

I have this vision that because I own a dog, soon I will be legally prohibited from joining a union.

It's not quite that bad -- yet. But a series of decisions expected this summer from the Bush-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could destroy the existing union memberships of millions of people in the U.S., and prevent any future unionization attempts by tens of millions more.

Under 1947's notorious union-busting Taft-Hartley Act, supervisors in the U.S. workforce are considered "management" and therefore have no legal right to unionize. The anticipated NLRB rulings, of three disputes collectively known as the Kentucky River cases, would allow employers in a wide array of industries to reclassify as "supervisors" any employee who has any type of oversight, no matter how fleeting, over a lower-ranked or less senior co-worker. Workers who take on apprentices. Lead men in manufacturing crews. Nurses who direct nurse aides.

And, well, I order our dog around. A lot. She seems to like it.

It really is just about that ridiculous. A nurse, for example, has no power to hire or fire, doesn't set schedules, can't mete out discipline. Yet under these rulings, she or he would be considered "management."

Even though no decisions have been issued by the NLRB, the anticipation of a favorable (for them) ruling already has employers chomping at the bit. AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff estimates the NLRB has already deferred about 120 cases in which union election results have been disputed; employers want to wait for the Kentucky River ruling to see if they can simply declare their workers ineligible to conduct unionization votes at all. In New Jersey, nurses with a common contact at twelve New Jersey hospitals threatened to strike before reaching contract language that guaranteed they wouldn't be reclassified as supervisors.

In a mid-June NLRB hearing, the Chief Nursing Officer of Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Charlene Tachivana, offered a novel argument against a suit demanding that the hospital negotiate with the nurses' union, the Washington State Nurses' Association, before implementing a contested policy. Tachivana argued that all 600 of Virginia Mason's RNs were in fact supervisors -- that they were able to hire, fire, and write policy, and therefore not eligible to be in the union at all. "That's ludicrous," says Virginia Mason nurse Jeaux Rinehart, noting that he and other nurses cannot hire, fire, or write policies. "She's trying to take attention from [the suit] with a much larger issue" -- namely, the anticipated Kentucky River rulings.

"You could see health care and hospital strikes across America if the decision is too broad," says Acuff. He estimates 300,000 nurses could be affected by the rulings, and up to 1.5 million other workers: "Team leaders and gang leaders in ports, lead men in mines, lead men in docks at manufacturing facilities and warehouses, engineers, people who oversee apprentices in trades....almost every senior worker does this to some extent." A study to be released this week by the Economic Policy Institute estimates that in a worst case scenario, up to eight million union workers could be disenfranchised. Such a ruling, covering two-third of America's unionized labor force, would not only decimate organized labor, but undercut much of the Democratic Party's organizing and get-out-the-vote infrastructure. Thus far, the controversy has gotten remarkably little media coverage.

The Bush administration has done this sort of thing before: changing the interpretation of regulations so as to affect sweeping changes without the bother of getting a controversial policy through Congress. It's used such tactics extensively, for example, to eviscerate environmental policies. It's happened in labor law, too. "Whenever they redefine a word, working people get screwed," says David Groves of the Washington State Labor Council, which is also organizing to stop the Virginia Mason reclassification.

Given the NLRB record under Bush, labor leaders are not optimistic that Kentucky River will turn out well. They are particularly exercised that in Kentucky River, as in all its other cases since Bush took office, the NLRB refused to hear oral arguments - the practice in all previous administrations. "To be willing to consider a decision of this magnitude and not even be willing to consider the effect on working people is unconscionable," says Acuff. "This administration has been more antithetical to the rights of workers than any since Herbert Hoover."

The NLRB is expected to rule on the three cases, ironically enough, by Labor Day. Labor leaders want the public to ask members of Congress to, at minimum, force the NLRB to actually hold hearings on Kentucky River. This week, July 10-14, workers will demonstrate in cities across the country; details are at AFLCIO.org.

I'll bring my dog.

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