Board slashes workers rights to join unions

By a razor-thin margin, the National Labor Relations Board voted 3-2 on Oct. 3 to immediately rob up to 8 million workers of their right to belong to a union.

The five-member board ruled that workers who have even very limited oversight duties — like nurses who occasionally reassign co-workers to patients in a nursing home during a particular shift — may be properly classified as “supervisors” and are therefore ineligible for union membership.

The ruling, known as the “Kentucky River decision,” could conceivably apply to workers in a wide array of industries, including retail, manufacturing, construction, mining and other skilled occupations.

The three members of the board who voted for the decision are all Republicans.

In their dissenting opinion, NLRB board members Wilma B. Liebman and Dennis P. Walsh, both Clinton appointees, wrote, “Today’s decision threatens to create a new class of workers under federal labor law: workers who have neither the genuine prerogatives of management, nor the statutory rights of ordinary employees. In that category may fall most professionals (among many other workers) who by 2012 could number almost 34 million, accounting for 23.3 percent of the workforce.”

Reaction from John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, was swift and sharp. “Today’s decision is the latest in the Bush-appointed NLRB’s legal maneuvering to deny as many workers as possible their basic right to have a voice on the job and improve their living standards through their union.

“Over the last several years, the NLRB has chipped away at that right by limiting the eligibility of disabled workers, teaching assistants, temporary workers and others to join unions,” Sweeney said. “Now, at the very time middle-class workers need more help, not less, the NLRB is taking a broad swing.”

The Service Employees International Union, which represents 84,000 nurses in 23 states, warned in a statement that the ruling could undermine the quality of health care. The NRLB decision “undermines efforts by nurses to address the shortage of bedside nurses by uniting at work to improve working conditions and patient care standards. With a growing and aging population, the U.S. Department of Labor projects 1.2 million registered nurses will be needed to fill both new and vacant slots.”

Mary Kay Henry, SEIU’s executive vice president, said, “The Bush administration’s rulings are bad for nurses and their families, bad for patients and come at a time when we are already struggling to attract nurses back to the bedside to provide quality care our patients deserve.”

A study released in March by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research indicated that nonunion nurses are paid 13 percent less than their union counterparts and in some cities that gap increases to 28 percent. The study concluded that inadequate pay and difficult working conditions drive nurses away from the bedside.

Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “In California, any employer who is crazy enough to force a nurse out of a contract will be at war with us.” The CNA denounced the NLRB ruling as a “fundamental assault on democracy and patient safety,” and said nurses would be ready to strike to defend their rights.

The NRLB ruling applied to a case involving nurses working at the Oakwood Heritage Hospital, an acute care center in Taylor, Mich. In two other cases, one involving “lead persons” at a metals plant in McComb, Miss., and the other involving nurses at a nursing home in Hibbing, Minn., the board ruled that employers had failed to prove such persons were truly supervisors in the sense of exercising independent judgment.

The same day that the board issued its rulings, Jobs with Justice, a union-community coalition, initiated an online letter to congressional lawmakers calling for legislative action to oppose it.

The board’s decision, JwJ said, “significantly expands the definition and enables employers to make a supervisor out of any worker who has the authority to assign or direct another and uses independent judgment.”

Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers union, said, “What is left to our union members is a political challenge to immediately fight back by encouraging voters in this November’s midterm election to hold accountable those legislators who helped give us this pro-corporate Supreme Court and board [NLRB].”