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National Labor Ruination Board

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Last Thursday, a band of roughly 1,000 demonstrators assembled by the AFL-CIO paraded past the White House, in a driving rain, to the headquarters of the National Labor Relations Board. They asked the board, which was established 72 years ago to protect workers' right to bargain, to cease and desist. No more rulings. And no more new members (the terms of three of the board's five members are due to expire shortly) who see their mission as destroying the right of employees to bargain with their bosses.

The outburst was prompted by the board's September work product: 61 decisions that both weakened workers' rights and ran counter to the purpose of the National Labor Relations Act, which proclaims that the policy of the United States is to protect "the exercise by workers of full freedom of association [and] self-organization." Absent such rights, the act states, the nation's economy would suffer from workers' diminished purchasing power and run greater risks of economic downturns. It's a very Keynesian act, the NLRA.

And, at the moment, it is being interpreted by Bush-appointed board members who take their cues from Brits more venerable (if more nominally fictitious) than Keynes -- the heavies in the novels of Charles Dickens, who invoke Victorian nostrums as they treat their workers like dirt. Lest you think I misconstrue their literary and moral pedigree, consider the Bush appointees' Sept. 11 ruling in the case of 44 longtime employees whom a Florida resort illegally fired -- the illegality of the firings was not in question -- while they were on strike over Grosvenor of Orlando's failure to bargain in good faith with their union. At issue was the amount of back pay the resort had to pay its workers.

The employees had been picketing for just four days when they were canned, and the picket line continued for several weeks.

Forty-three of the 44 workers found new employment within three months of being fired. In the view of Bush's commissars, however, the picketers should have abandoned their picketing as soon as they were pink-slipped -- surrendering instantly on their efforts to compel the resort to bargain, to recover their jobs, and to retain their seniority and benefits. The board denied full back pay to workers who hadn't sought employment within two weeks of being discharged because to do so, the Bush appointees wrote in unconscious homage to Dickens, "would be to reward idleness."

The work records of the discharged employees who stayed on the picket line too long are those of maids, waiters, kitchen and laundry workers in their 50s and 60s, all of whom resumed more or less the same work at other resorts within a few months. Reading their work histories, I doubt the idea of idleness even occurred to them. Some of them did obtain new jobs within two weeks, but their new employers didn't want them to report to work quite so soon. No matter: The board docked them for not landing what member Dennis Walsh, in an angry dissent, called "interim interim" jobs (since most of them believed they'd eventually return to Grosvenor) before their next job started.

And the board was just warming up. On Sept. 29 -- a date that will live in the Double Standard Hall of Fame -- the NLRB issued two rulings, the first (Dana Corp./Metaldyne) dealing with "card check." This is the process by which an employer can recognize a union when a majority of employees sign cards or petitions affiliating themselves with that union, bypassing the board election process, which an anti-union employer can drag out for years. The board ruled that once a union was certified through card check, the employer must post a notice telling employees that if 30 percent of them sign a petition saying they don't want a union, the 50 percent-plus-one of them that do are overruled and a board election must be held. The Bush appointees argued that card-check isn't a good measure of worker sentiment, since those employees who sign cards and petitions may be susceptible to "group pressure."

On the same day, however, in a case (Wurtland Nursing) involving an employer's withdrawal of recognition from the union in its workplace, the board ruled that if a majority of workers signed cards or petitions asking for a vote to remove the union, the employer could decertify the union then and there without even holding that vote. Signed petitions from workers, in other words, are suspect when the workers want a union and proof positive when they don't.

Just in case you were wondering what those people were doing out there, demonstrating in the rain.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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