Labor Activists: Workers' Protection Agency Stacked Against Working People


The recent AFL-CIO-led protests against the National Labor Relations Board highlighted dozens of rulings that undermine the rights of people on the job.

The demonstrations, which included more than 1,000 people marching through downtown Washington to NLRB headquarters on Nov. 15 -- and thousands more descending on agency offices in 25 other cities nationwide -- were based on a catalog of heavily anti-worker rulings the labor federation says pervert both the agency's mission and the intent of U.S. labor law.

What the AFL-CIO calls "The September Steamroller" is so bad that the 61 rulings it cited led protesters to demand the board shut down until a new president is elected and names a new board.

The cases run the gamut from making it harder to win back pay from labor law- breaking firms to making it easier for thinly disguised company-run 'decertification" campaigns to throw unions out of workplaces, to letting firms sue unions in retaliation for virtually anything and get away with it, to letting employers threaten workers with dire consequences should they unionize.

"In case after case, these decisions reverse the course" of the National Labor Relations Act, the federation said. The board's Bush-named GOP majority is turning labor law "away from its original purposes of fostering workplace democracy and redressing economic inequality and towards a regulatory regimen that protects employer prerogatives instead of workers."

"This board is resolving the doubts in borderline cases in the wrong direction," the federation quoted former University of Michigan law school dean Theodore St. Antoine as saying. Among the key cases that not only drove the unionists into the streets but also drove the AFL-CIO to file a formal complaint against the Bush board with the International Labour Organization are:

* The Dana and Metaldyne cases, involving the Auto Workers and two firms that voluntarily agreed to recognize UAW at their plants after a majority of all workers signed union election authorization cards--the "card-check" process. Normally, when unions are recognized, they have a year of being free from challenge by dissenters, called "decertification." And decertification needs signatures from only 30% of workers.

The Bush board, by a party-line vote on Sept. 29, said that if the union wins recognition by card-check, the board would send the firm a notice--which the company must post--telling dissenters that if they file a decert petition with enough signatures within 45 days of card-check recognition, it's valid. Then the board holds a decert election. Often, bargaining hasn't even started within 45 days of recognition.

In other rulings that same day, the Bush majority accepted something less than cards--signed slips of paper--as a decertification petition, and said that if an absolute majority of workers signed cards calling for a decertification election, the company could immediately dump the union, without a vote.

* In an 8-year-old case, St. George Warehouse, from Kearney, Neb., the Bush majority reversed more than 40 years of prior rulings--as it did in the UAW cases--and cut the amount of back pay workers are owed once the board finds they were illegally fired. It did so by saying workers must prove they are owed back pay for all the time they were out after the firings--by proving they sought work. The precedents told firms to prove fired workers were not seeking work, in order to cut the back pay.

* In a related case, the Bush board majority also said workers who stalled for two weeks seeking interim work--in hopes the employer would come back to bargaining and settle--would get nothing for those weeks. The board's dissenting Democrats said "requiring this search for 'interim interim' employment is entirely without precedent.'"

* Again overturning previous precedents, the Bush board majority ordered that all a Wisconsin employer had to do to remedy its continuous and outrageous labor law-breaking was hold a second election. The employer, Intermet Stevensville, threatened to close the plant, threatened to eliminate jobs, made "widespread statements about the futility of selecting" the Auto Workers, demoted and cut the pay of a pro-union worker, confiscated literature, removed bulletin boards and committed other violations.

"This is conduct of a type that the board and the courts have previously found is likely to have a long-lasting impact on the workplace, creating an atmosphere of fear in which there is little or no possibility of a fair election," the AFL-CIO said. The normal remedy for that in the past has been to order the firm to immediately recognize and bargain with the union, here the UAW. The Bush board instead ordered a rerun vote.

* The AFL-CIO pointed out the long delays in many of the rulings. "Of the 61 decisions…a total of 33 decisions-- more than half of those issued--had been pending more than 4 years," it said. One case from Brooklyn, where 202 workers were illegally fired, stretched back to 1989. Those workers have yet to receive any back pay.

* The board majority gave employers far more leeway to threaten workers, in a Sept. 20 ruling involving Suburban Electrical Contractors of Appleton, Wis., and IBEW supporter Randy Reinders. As two supervisors walked near Reinders, one asked "'Well, Dave, did you 'take care of' our union problem yet?" The other, pointing to Reinders, replied: "What, you mean Randy?" The board's administrative law judge called the exchange "an unlawful threat of adverse consequences" for Reinders. The Bush majority called it "ambiguous" and threw out the case.

* Even temporary replacement workers can become permanent--and workers forced to strike are out of jobs. In a case involving Jones Plastic & Engineering of Camden, N.J., the 3-man Bush-named majority said that "replacement workers can be treated as permanent and given preference over strikers even if they were informed" when they were hired that they would be working at the employer's discretion and could be let go for any reason--including taking returning strikers back.

The 61 rulings are not the only problems workers face, the fed noted. It also pointed out a consistent pattern by the Bush-named majority of the board to shrink the numbers and kinds of workers covered by labor law's incomplete protections. And in a case the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago later overturned, the Bush majority allowed a company to lock out strikers who offered to return to work--overturning 40 years of precedents--while still employing those who crossed picket lines.

"Instead of shrinking the (National Labor Relations) act's coverage, protections and remedies, the board should be trying to figure out why virulent anti-union campaigns are still the norm, why workers ace such fear and intimidation when they try to form an union, why so many organizing campaigns still involve so many violations of workers' rights and why the rights guaranteed by the act are still outside the grasp of so many workers," the federation concluded.

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