Over the past few years, the Obama administration and its appointees in independent agencies have been busy on the worker rights front. Updating overtime rules, allowing new forms of worker organizing, passing new safety standards, banning contractors that violate labor laws from getting federal work — it's been a lot for businesses to stomach.
It's also been a full employment program for lobbyists. Industry groups, from hospitality to agribusiness, have sought to block the executive branch by any means necessary, whether through the courts, through Congressional repeal, or, as a last resort, the budget. The House and Senate Republican funding proposals contained riders rolling back the implementation of a broad swath of the administration's actions, as well as decisions by the National Labor Relations Board that allowed for the establishment of "micro unions" within workplaces, eased the path toward collective bargaining with a franchisor or general contractor rather than just a franchisee or subcontractor, streamlined union election procedures and brought tribal casinos under the board's purview.
But when negotiators came back with a final deal, almost none of those riders made the cut. The only things employers had sought that made it in were restrictions on the implementation of the administration's "Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces" executive order, a pause on closing a loophole in safety rules for handling fertilizer and a delay in enforcing a minimum wage for seasonal contractors on federal lands. Most of the cuts to labor agencies and workforce development funding from the Republican proposals had been restored.
Now that isn't to say employers got nothing out of the 2,000-page bill, which will come up for a vote in the House and Senate tomorrow. The number of H-2B visas available for seasonal workers at ski resorts, golf courses, seafood processing plants, and agricultural work sites would by one estimate nearly triple under the omnibus, which labor groups warned would also weaken protections for those migrant workers. And employers also won a delay in the 40 percent excise tax on high-priced insurance plans, which unions had favored as well. (In this context, it's also useful to distinguish businesses that employ a lot of people from those that don't— the financial industry had backed a rider rolling back a Department of Labor rule that took aim at conflicts of interest in retirement advice, for example, but a coalition of large employers just thought the rule should be adjusted.)
But on balance, Republicans weren't able to deliver the laundry list of employer priorities that their proposal had promised.
Those most invested in blocking the administration's labor policy agenda, however, likely won't go away forever. Getting their priorities in a spending bill would have been only a temporary fix anyway. International Franchise Association spokesman Matt Haller, whose members have pulled out all the stops to block the NLRB's new "joint employer" interpretation from going into effect, says they'll be back next year to push repeal legislation that's already passed the House once.
"We may have lost the battle, but we haven’t lost the overall war," Haller says. "It’s only going to get more difficult to defend and maintain, as we anticipate cases piling up against small business franchisees. From our perspective, they’ve awakened a sleeping giant."
* This story has been updated to clarify the ERISA Industry Committee's position on the Department of Labor's rule on retirement advice.