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Federal labor board decisions are a bonanza for unions

National Labor Relations Board unveils several pro-labor decisions in short time frame

The federal agency in charge of adjudicating labor disputes has released not one but several major decisions benefiting labor unions in the past two weeks. And it's unlikely to stop there.

First, on Dec. 11, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that employees have the right to use their work email accounts for union organizing. The board followed that decision with an update to union election rules, making it easier for workers to quickly call for a vote. Then, on Dec.16, the NLRB expanded the number of university faculty who are eligible to join a union.

Earlier this week, NLRB attorney Richard Griffin said he would proceed with 13 labor complaints against McDonald's and some of its franchisees, setting the stage for a potential rewrite of the legal relationship between multinational fast food companies, their franchised restaurants, and low-wage employees.

The result, according to POLITICO labor and employment editor Timothy Noah, is that "the NLRB is exercising more muscle on labor's behalf than Obama achieved during his previous six years in office."

Business groups have taken notice. They appear to have been especially perturbed by the new rules speeding up the union election process, which groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce say will encourage "ambush elections."

Such groups fear the new rules will give employers less time to campaign against unionization. Because unions rarely call for an election unless they are sure they have a majority of the votes, a shorter campaigning period limits management's ability to persuade workers to vote against the union.

Another industry group, the National Association of Manufacturers, said the rule change "raises serious questions about whether the NLRB is advocating an outcome rather than acting as an impartial adjudicator."

“It’s clear the Administration has an aggressive agenda to uproot longstanding and effective labor policy," the group wrote in a statement.

Paul Secunda, director of the Labor and Employment Law Program at Marquette University Law School, said the NLRB likely made all those rulings in such a short time frame because it is trying to clear the docket before a personnel change.

"I think it's happening now because we just had a transition from one board member leaving the board to a new member coming on," Secunda told Al Jazeera. "So they wanted to get rid of all the decisions left so they wouldn't have a backlog."

The incoming member, Lauren McGarity McFerran, was confirmed by the lame duck Democratic Senate majority earlier this month.  

As for why those recent decisions favored Big Labor, there's a simpler explanation: President Barack Obama's Democratic appointees control the board with a three-fifths majority. And since Republicans in Congress are likely to block any labor-friendly legislation, the White House has evidently committed to doing what it can through executive action and regulatory changes.

"I think you're going to see a lot more regulatory action, because that's what's possible in this political environment," Secunda said. That labor-friendly regulatory action isn't just coming from the NLRB; in February, Obama signed an executive order increasing the minimum wage for workers at businesses with federal contracts.

The NLRB is expected to rule in several more high-profile cases in the coming months, and in the Obama administration's remaining two years. Come 2015, the labor board will likely release its long-awaited decision on whether student-athletes at Northwestern University have the right to form a union. The board also has yet to rule in the Browning-Ferris case, where its decision could change who is legally considered an employer in franchising and subcontracting relationships.

The board will also eventually have to issue a ruling on various labor complaints against McDonald's. And it is likely the NLRB may soon have an opportunity to revise its Bush-era decision that graduate teaching assistants at private universities do not have the right to unionize.

"I think we can expect pro-labor rulings" in Browning-Ferris and the Northwestern case, Secunda said.

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Labor, Unions

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