Brainstorming on Kentucky River decision

WASHINGTON — Starting what promises to be a complex, tough campaign of education, mass mobilizing and lobbying, a group of unionists met Feb. 7 to brainstorm on how to combat and overturn the National Labor Relations Board’s “workers are supervisors” decision.

Participants emphasized the need to educate their own members — and then the general public — on the fact that the agency’s ruling last year could affect them.

The meeting, organized by the AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees, discussed the impact of last year’s decision that expanded the legal definition of who is a supervisor. The NLRB vote was 3-2, following party lines, with President Bush’s three appointees voting for the change.

Estimates of the number of workers affected range from 8 million workers to 34 million.

In what are called the Kentucky River cases, the NLRB ruled workers are supervisors even if they spent as little as 10 percent to 15 percent of their time in actual supervisory duties. The board also ruled that if workers could be held responsible for actions of the others that they “supervise,” that makes them supervisors. And if workers use “independent judgment” in assigning others, that, too makes them supervisors.

AFT official Phil Kugler said the situation is so bad that “a school bus driver who can assign a school bus aide to a particular bus” could now be ruled a supervisor.

Labor law does not cover supervisors. Employers have the green light to fire, demote, or discipline those categorized as supervisors, and to force them to engage in management’s anti-union campaigns. Supervisors currently make up 10 to 12 percent of the workforce. Adding 8 million more would take that number as high as 20 percent. In some occupations, the impact is even greater.

The Economic Policy Institute says 35 percent of registered nurses, about 843,000 people, would be defined as supervisors under NLRB’s ruling, as would 123,800 (18 percent) of licensed practical nurses. Almost half (46 percent or 59,500) of airline pilots and navigators would be supervisors, along with 24,100 (12 percent) of media editors and reporters.

Even workers not thought of as supervisory, such as kindergarten teachers and social workers, would see thousands of their members ruled as supervisors and stripped of their rights under labor law. EPI said 49,500 (19 percent) of all kindergarten teachers, 16,200 (8.5 percent) of elementary school teachers and 36,000 (23 percent) of all social workers would be deemed “supervisors.”

Faced with that impact, session participants turned to brainstorming. They discussed contract language, first drafted by a New Jersey AFT nursing affiliate, to force firms to agree not to reclassify workers as supervisors. Putting that language in the contract covering 10 locals and their agreements with hospitals “was a strike issue,” said Jean Lucas, former president of AFT Local 5118.

Participants also discussed legislative fixes, but speakers said allies on Capitol Hill are still working on language to negate the Bush board’s decision. And they stressed it will take a lot of lobbying — and a change in the White House — to reverse it.

Kugler gave one example of a successful campaign to convince management not to follow a related Bush NLRB ruling, at Temple University in Philadelphia. The Bush majority had ruled that private-university graduate- student teaching assistants and research assistants are “students” (who are not covered by labor law), not “employees” (who are).

“We ran a community campaign, enlisted the local central labor council, looked at who was on Temple’s board and who was in the Legislature — and found Temple got state appropriations,” Kugler said. That forced Temple to cover the TAs and RAs in a contract.

Some of the session participants reported that web sites of union-busting law firms are already advertising their services to draft plans to help companies convert workers into “supervisors.”