Determined to slow down and even reverse parts of the attack on workers' rights by GOP lawmakers, the Obama administration moved under the radar over the last month to issue some of the most pro-worker rules the country has seen in 35 years.
The new rules cover union elections, hours of work and wages, among other things.
On union elections, the National Labor Relations Board approved a final in December that eliminates delays that bosses have traditionally used to thwart union organizing drives.
"The final rule will focus pre-election hearings on issues relevant to determining if there is a question concerning representation, provide for pre-election briefing only when it will assist decision makers, reduce piecemeal appeals, consolidate requests for review of regional directors' pre and post-election determinations into a single, post-election request, make review of post-election determinations discretionary, and eliminate duplicative regulations," the NLRB said. "The final rule will allow the board to more promptly determine if there is a question concerning representation and, if so, to resolve it by conducting a secret ballot election and certifying the results."
Unions have praised the decision. The stronger version of the changes that they had hoped for was thwarted by a big business-orchestrated campaigned. Companies filed 65,000 comments that the NLRB, under its rules, was forced to review before it came to its final decision on the package of more modest reform.
"It's good news that the NLRB has taken this modest but important step to help ensure workers who want to vote to form a union at their workplace get a fair opportunity to do so," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka after the board's Dec. 21 decision "Many more improvements are needed to protect workers' rights. We hope the board will quickly move to adopt the rest of its proposed reforms to modernize and streamline the election process."
The Obama Administration is ahead also on the question of helping workers who are forced to work long hours, past the point of fatigue.
Three years after a fatal plane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., the Federal Aviation Administration has issued rules limiting the hours that passenger plane pilots can consecutively fly - and lengthening their in-between rest periods.
"The new rule incorporates the latest fatigue science to set different requirements for pilot flight time, duty period and rest based on the time of day pilots begin their first flight, the number of scheduled flight segments and the number of time zones they cross," the agency said. Old rules had "different rest requirements for domestic, international and unscheduled flights" which were inconsistent and "did not take into account factors such as start time and time zone crossings."
Under the new rule, "allowable length of a flight duty period depends on when the pilot's day begins and the number of flight segments he or she is expected to fly, and ranges from 9-14 hours for single crew operations," the FAA said. "Flight duty begins when a crew member is required to report for duty, with the intention of conducting a flight, and ends when the aircraft is parked after the last flight. It includes time before a flight or between flights that a pilot is working without an intervening rest period." Ret periods are lengthened to 10 hours between flights, up from eight, it added.
Air Line Pilots Association President Capt. Lee Moak praised the agency for issuing the new rule. But the union says the same new rule should be extended to cover cargo carrier pilots also.
"For decades, ALPA fought for regulations based on modern science, application equally to all types of airline operations, including domestic, international and supplemental, and for regulations that result in fatigue risk management systems," Koal said.
On a third front, the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division has published a proposed rules change that would bring 2 million domestic workers under minimum wage and overtime pay laws.
The DOL's proposal, published Dec. 27, is an attempt to reduce the number of these workers who are exploited because it says that workers directly employed by a family or an individual are not the only ones protected by wage laws.
Domestic Workers United has hailed the new proposed rules:
"All of the organizing among workers and allies to bring dignity and respect to home care work has paid off," DWU said. "The White House and the Department of Labor announced proposed changes to extend overtime pay and minimum wage protections to home care workers. Long excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1974, home care workers may finally get the rights they deserve for the important work they do,"
The DOL report backing up its call for the new rules noted: "Private household work has been one of the least attractive fields of employment. Wages are low, work hours are highly irregular and non-wage benefits are few."
The 1974 act in Congress was insufficient, the DOL said, because it exempted from protection "babysitters and companions who are not regular bread-winners responsible for the support of their families."
The Supreme Court used that legal loophole to leave most home caregivers out in the legal cold," said the DOL report.
Photo: Flowers are left by family members of the victims of a plane crash at the site near Buffalo, N.Y., Feb. 16, 2009. Pilot fatigue was blamed as a contributing factor. (David Duprey/AP)