This year marks the 76th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act, the Depression-era law that was essential in building an American middle class – and which remains essential to the well-being of all working Americans.
But you know what? Powerful corporate interests and their Republican buddies in Congress are nevertheless trying mightily to cripple what has so long been one of the most important U.S. laws of any kind.
Their main target currently is the National Labor Relations Board – the NLRB –which administers the National Labor Relations Act and takes seriously the act’s stated purpose of encouraging collective bargaining between workers and their employers.
The five-member labor board did very little to carry out its task of encouraging unionization during the notoriously anti-union Bush administration. But under President Obama, the NLRB has been doing its job – or has been trying to do its job — in the face of stiff Republican opposition.
The Republican opponents claim – what else? – that under Obama, the NLRB has become a tool of organized labor, Big Labor, as they like to call it.
It’s impossible to take those charges seriously. The labor board obviously has not been acting as an agent of unions, big or small. It’s merely been enforcing the law. But that, of course, means anti-labor forces no longer have the firm cooperation of the NLRB in their attempts to weaken unions as much as possible. They no longer have an ally in the White House. Bush is gone.
Imagine that. The National Labor Relations Board is actually doing what the law says it should do. And unions are actually getting a more or less even break vis-à-vis the corporate interests with whom they collectively bargain – or with whom they try to bargain.
What’s really got the anti-labor crowd sputtering lately is a ruling by the NLRB’s acting general counsel, Lafe Solomon, against the Boeing Aircraft Company. Boeing was charged with breaking the labor law by moving a major assembly line from a unionized plant in Washington State to South Carolina, a notably anti-union state, in response to a machinist strike at the Washington plant.
Moving the assembly line was done in violation of a provision in the National Labor Relations Act that bans companies from punishing striking unions by withholding or transferring jobs. Thus, said the NLRB’s Solomon, the assembly line should be moved back to Washington State.
Oh, boy, those union-hating Republicans in Congress didn’t like that at all. They threatened to defund the NLRB if it doesn’t withdraw its order to Boeing, trotting out their usual tired response to just about anything done in favor of unions these days. You’ve undoubtedly heard it – thousands of times, maybe. Yes, that’s right. A ruling in favor of labor and labor law would be . . . Ah, yes, a job killer. Sure.
GOP House members have actually introduced something called – really – “The Protecting Jobs From Government Interference Act.” that would void the NLRB order against Boeing and prohibit future such orders. The proposed law undoubtedly has the approval of the union-hating U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has led the right-wing charge against the NLRB. It complains that the labor board is “out of control.”
Actually, the NLRB is out of control – out of control of the right-wingers who had their way throughout Bush’s two terms and are miffed that, unlike Bush, Obama doesn’t think their way is the only way to handle labor-management relations.
Much to the chagrin of the right-wingers, the labor board has come back strong under Obama. One of the board’s most important steps has been to develop rules to streamline the workplace elections that are held to determine if workers want to unionize.
The board has cut short the pre-election periods that employers have used to harass workers into voting against unionization, approaching them individually and in mass meetings, frequently threatening to fire or otherwise penalize workers who vote for union representation. Obama’s NLRB also has cut back the time for management to appeal the outcome of a vote for unionization.
The changes, as one union attorney noted, are “common sense changes that drag labor law into the 21st century.”
Common sense often doesn’t mean much to anti-labor Republicans. Sensible or not, they plunge onward on the anti-labor path that’s always been theirs. According to a count by Politico.com’s Joseph Williams, House Republicans have convened oversight hearings on the NLRB or summoned board members to Capitol Hill 14 times since the midterm elections to answer harassing questions and have threatened to severely cut the NLRB’s budget to “bring the board to heel.”
So, it’s still not easy for unions and workers who want to join unions, despite the progressive change in the NLRB’s attitude and operations.
But the situation is looking much better since the change has come, since the law that promises American workers the right of unionization – and the important benefits that come from it – -is now being enforced by people who believe that their mission is not to hamper unions, but to encourage their growth for the benefit of all Americans.
Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.