The National Labor Relations Board proposed new rules this week that would make it easier for workers to unionize.
The NLRB proposals would shorten the process by ensuring that employers, employees and unions receive information sooner and by delaying employer-instigated litigation over many voter-eligibility issues until after workers vote on whether to unionize.
It is through such litigation that employers are now able to remove workers who back the union from the list of eligible voters. Companies frequently delay elections, for example, by submitting lists of employees they say are really "supervisors" and therefore ineligible to vote. The rule changes would prevent such claims from causing delays because they would have to be taken up after the election.
Taken as a whole, the proposed NLRB changes could significantly shorten the now-average two months time that it takes after a petition is filed before an election actually happens.
The problem now is that once petitions for an election are filed, companies use the average two-month period before the election to hire union-busters, run anti-union propaganda campaigns and even harass and fire union supporters. The new rules give them less time to do this.
Also among the proposed rule changes are measures that would speed up the process by allowing electronic filing of petitions and other materials.
One of the board's four members, Brian Hayes, the only Republican, dissented from the proposed new rules.
The AFL-CIO has applauded the proposed changes because the new rules weaken the ability of companies to deny workers their right to form a union.
Labor and its allies back the changes because, at least to a modest degree, they address a major problem the now-sidelined Employee Free Choice Act was designed to solve - the problem of companies getting too much time to kill union organizing drives. The EFCA, in its various forms, would have allowed workers to choose a union either via majority sign-up (card-check) or, in case of a secret ballot election, an election held within days, not months, after the filing of a petition.
Right wingers, as expected, are mounting an almost hysterical campaign against the proposed changes. They are trying to take full advantage of the 75 days everyone has to submit official reactions to the board, which can then modify the proposals.
"It's like the sky is falling ," is how James Park, in a piece written for the AFL-CIO website, characterizes conservative reaction to the rules changes.
Randy Johnson, the chief labor official at the Chamber of Commerce, declared yesterday, "The proposal is one of the administration's biggest gifts yet to organized labor."
A day earlier Michael Eastman, another Chamber official, used identical language in reaction to an unrelated proposal by the Labor Department that would improve transparency reporting by "consultants," the word employers use to describe union-busters they hire to fight unions.
"This is probably the most significant handout to organized labor that we've seen in this administration," Eastman said about the proposed Labor Department rule.
But Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, called the NLRB moves "a modest step" that would be good for businesses as well as workers.
"Our current system is a broken, bureaucratic maze that stalls and stymies workers' choices," Trumka said. "With the proposal of these new standards, the board is taking a modest step to remove roadblocks and reduce litigation - and that's good news for employers as well as employees."
In the past two weeks, particularly after the NLRB sued Boeing for retaliating against its union workers by opening a production line in a non-union plant in South Carolina, Republicans have accused the NLRB of going beyond what they narrowly define as its mission of scheduling union elections and resolving disputes.
The NLRB argues that enforcement of labor law and entering the rule-making process to revamp existing procedures are actually solid board traditions ever since it was established under the National Labor Relations Act 75 years ago.
"It is fair to predict that the new proposals will be controversial," the board's chair, Wilma Liebman, said in a statement accompanying the proposed rules changes. "That controversy is unfortunate, but it is not a good reason for the board to abandon its responsibilities."
Her reasoning was completely lost on Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, chair of the House Education and the Workforce (formerly Labor) Committee, who said, "Big Labor has found faithful friends on the Obama NLRB, who are working hard to fix a process that isn't broken."
The committee's senior Democrat, Rep. George Miller of California, had the opposite view. "Idealogues will undoubtedly criticize and scaremonger over this modest, common-sense proposal," he said. "In reality, the proposal will reduce costly litigation for all parties and reduce unnecessary conflict in the workplace."