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NLRB targets workers' rights (again)

By Darrin Hoop, UFCW Local 21 | November 3, 2006 | Page 15

THE KENTUCKY River case recently handed down by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could prevent millions of workers labeled as "supervisors" from joining or remaining in unions.

But it's only the latest in a series of anti-union rulings by that body under the administration of George W. Bush. The NLRB under Bush has also stripped the right to form unions from graduate research assistants, disabled workers in vocational programs, and workers hired through temporary agencies.

Now the Kentucky River case makes a bleak picture for workers' rights even worse.

According to a 2002 Government Accounting Office report, 25 percent of the civilian workforce--32 million workers--is without any legal protection to form unions. These include, in part, farm workers, domestic workers and independent contractors.

The largest group of employees without collective bargaining rights, some 10.2 million people, are those deemed supervisors by the NLRB--a category that now includes charge nurses, according to the Kentucky River ruling.

In order to understand how labor has gotten to this point, we must look at the history of the NLRB, a federal agency with headquarters in Washington and 34 regional offices. It's run by a five-person board whose members are appointed by the president, with the approval of the Senate, for staggered five-year terms.

The NLRB's job is to define bargaining units, hold elections, certify union elections and to interpret and apply the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, originally known as the Wagner Act. The law acknowledged workers' right to form unions and made it illegal for employers to refuse to bargain with them.

Roosevelt backed the NLRA because he recognized that working-class anger was reaching a boiling point in the early 1930s. He hoped to prevent a working-class rebellion, and he needed workers' votes in order to win re-election in 1936.

The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, dramatically restricted the NLRA in response to the biggest strike wave in U.S. history.

During the 12 months after the Second World War ended in 1945, more than five million workers were involved in strikes. Taft-Hartley outlawed wildcat strikes, solidarity strikes known as secondary boycotts, and mass picketing. It also required all union officials to sign affidavits stating that they weren't members of the Communist Party.

A less well-known provision excluded supervisors from the right to join unions by including a broad definition of employees who have a managerial responsibility to hire, fire, or discipline other employees if "the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment"--language cited in the Kentucky River ruling.

Democratic President Harry Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley in June 1947, knowing that the Republican-controlled Congress had more than enough votes to override his veto. By the middle of 1948, Truman had used the law 12 times to break strikes. As Sharon Smith points out in her book Subterranean Fire, by 1957, the law had severely weakened the labor movement.

For almost 60 years, the official labor movement has failed to mount a successful challenge to the crushing weight of Taft Hartley. Today, reliance on the Democratic Party, labor-management partnership, corporate campaigns, and a weakening of union democracy has opened the door to a new round of attacks.

As an increasing number of U.S. workers are thrown back into pre-NLRA 1935 working conditions, workers would do well to follow the model of unions like the California Nurses Association, where 30,000 members have already signed pledges to strike if their employers try to implement the new Kentucky River ruling.

After all, it was the three great mass strikes of 1934 in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis that compelled Congress to "grant" the right to join unions under the original NLRA. Learning from that history will be key to politically arming the labor movement to move forward today.

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