NLRB feels street heat

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NewsAnalysis

The streets outside the National Labor Relations Board office in Washington were sizzling, and it wasn’t just the July heat. For the first time in its 70-year history, the board was shut down for two hours July 13 as nine union and religious leaders, backed by 1,500 labor supporters, blocked traffic outside. It was a pre-emptive strike on a pending NLRB decision on three potentially far-reaching cases.

The details of the cases are complicated — they deal with the legal definition of who is a supervisor — but the bottom line is that, in a worst case scenario, a board decision could give the nation’s employers the right to legally bar up to 8 million U.S. workers from being union members.

They would do this by designating as a “supervisor” anyone who has skills, gives direction to others and exercises judgment. A nurse, a construction crew leader or a powerhouse dispatcher might be anointed a “supervisor” by the federal labor board. They won’t get a raise in pay, an expense account or even a high-back chair. But they will be left without any protection, even subject to firing. And the bargaining power of their co-workers will be diminished.

When a group of people work together every day, confronting the same workplace issues like health and safety, for example, should they be required to go it alone in dealing with their employer? Or should our country’s laws give them the right to join together and bargain collectively?

The majority of America’s 125 million workers support such a right. In fact, a majority of workers say they would join a union if given a chance. The Bush administration labor policy is all about making sure they don’t get that chance.

The demonstrators had good reason to take pre-emptive action. In previous decisions, the NLRB, which now consists of five Bush appointees, said that temporary workers can only join unions with their bosses’ permission. It ruled that college teaching assistants who are graduate students aren’t union-eligible workers because their status is “educational,” and that disabled workers are barred because their work is “rehabilitative.”

Other Bush-controlled agencies have further sliced and diced the working class, removing collective bargaining from the reach of civilian employees of the Department of Defense, federal workers in transportation and the Department of Homeland Security. Decisions by pro-business judges have denied the protection of labor law to the millions of members of our country’s working class who are undocumented.

What’s new in this battle is that labor isn’t giving an inch. The D.C. action was one of 21 demonstrations in as many cities in a week of action starting July 10 called by the AFL-CIO. Leading up to the actions, the labor movement mobilized 130,000 members and supporters to send messages to Congress in support of workers’ rights to a collective voice at work.

Stewart Acuff, the AFL-CIO’s organizing director, credited the federation’s affiliates for the strong mobilization. That represents a more sophisticated level of understanding and commitment by labor leaders and the rank and file to a complex issue that spans politics and collective bargaining.

Reports from the demonstrations pointed to 10,000 grassroots participants. Teamsters, Steelworkers, Carpenters, nurses from many unions and phone workers, among others, were on the scene. Local labor federations and Jobs with Justice worked together in coordinating the actions.

Besides nurses, building trades workers in particular are concerned with what the NLRB might do. With a bad decision, up to 20 percent of their members could lose their rights to union membership.

Acuff said it’s hard to see how even the Bush-appointed board could ignore workers’ voices. The decision on the supervisor question, he told the World, could come down anywhere on a wide spectrum. In the worst-case scenario, which could purge up to one-third of registered nurses from their unions, the employers and government could expect health care strikes and serious disruptions in the economy.

The NLRB-protest actions build on a several-year-long campaign spearheaded by Acuff to support the right to organize as a human rights issue. The campaign has focused on building support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers a direct path to unionization, bypassing pro-employer NLRB procedures. Remarkably, the EFCA is only two supporters short of a majority in the House.

If a change in Congress is achieved this November, the rising consciousness and activity of the rank and file may be able to make the difference in winning some victories in the battle for rights for working people in the U.S.

Roberta Wood (rwood@pww.org) is labor editor of the People’s Weekly World. Pepe Lozano, Marilyn Bechtel and Denise Winebrenner Edwards contributed.