Harold Meyerson
Opinion writer December 1, 2011

The Republican war on unions continues apace. On a near-party-line vote Wednesday, the House passed a bill crafted to thwart a National Labor Relations Board decision, made earlier Wednesday, that would entitle workers to a timely vote on unionization once they’ve petitioned for it. By ruling that employers’ legal challenges can be entertained only after a vote, the board effectively denied employers the ability to hold up a vote for weeks, months or even years. Elections delayed, the NLRB essentially said, are elections denied.

The House legislation, by contrast, stipulated that such legal challenges can go forward before the vote. The bill will almost surely go nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but then, it’s just one foray in the Republicans’ battle to extirpate worker-controlled organizations in America.

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

In the run-up to Wednesday’s NLRB vote, there was considerable doubt as to whether a vote could even be held. The five-seat board is down to three members. Republicans have vowed not to confirm any more of President Obama’s appointees, and the Supreme Court ruled last year that if the board’s membership fell to just two, it would no longer have the power to issue rulings. In recent weeks a number of Republicans have urged the board’s remaining GOP member, Brian Hayes, to resign, stripping the board of its rule-setting ability. After NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce scaled back the proposed reform, Hayes decided to stay on, though he did vote against Pearce’s modified proposal.

Also Wednesday, one ostensible casus belli for the GOP war on the board was removed when Boeing and the Machinists Union agreed on a new contract, under which the company committed to expand production at its unionized Washington-state factories. In return, the union agreed to drop its complaint to the NLRB against Boeing’s new factory in non-union South Carolina. When the NLRB’s general counsel took up the case, Republicans pounced: The board, they said, was threatening to kill jobs. This week, the general counsel indicated that if the machinists dropped the case, so would he.

But that won’t stop the GOP’s jihad. The term of NLRB member Craig Becker expires this month, which will winnow board membership down to a powerless two. GOP legislators won’t confirm more members as long as Obama is president, nor will they permit a congressional recess during which Obama could make recess appointments. Throughout 2012, then, the organization that governs labor relations in the United States will govern no more: Lower-level labor-board judges can issue rulings, but the board to which such rulings can be appealed will be MIA. Labor disputes will enter a terra incognita: Can they be heard by a court absent a board ruling? Can employers or unions willfully violate labor law with the assurance that the referees are no longer on the field? Conundrums loom.

Some might reasonably wonder why the GOP war persists when union power has already been so greatly reduced. In the mid-20th century, 40 percent of private-sector workers belonged to unions; today, just 7 percent do. But the Republican struggle continues for two reasons. When it comes to elections, unions are still the most potent mobilizers of the Democratic vote — getting minorities to the polls and persuading members of the white working class to vote Democratic. Indeed, Republican gains among working-class whites (whom they carried by an unprecedented 63 percent to 33 percent in 2010) are, above all, the result of the deunionization of that class. An analysis of exit polling over the past 30 years shows that unionized white working-class men vote Democratic at a rate 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts. For political reasons, Republicans are determined to de-unionize workers even more.

There’s another reason, too. The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that in the third quarter, wages as a share of gross domestic product were the lowest they’ve been since 1929, and compensation (that includes health insurance) as a share of GDP was at its lowest point since 1955. Corporate profits as a share of GDP, by contrast, are the highest they’ve been since 1929. The destruction of private-sector unions has redistributed income to the rich, which is the Republican Party’s raison d’etre.

Which is why the Republican war on unions — which is also the Republican war on the 99 percent — rolls on.

meyersonh@washpost.com