Brian Snyder / Reuters

Scott Walker sets sights on unions, outlines plan to alter US labor law

Presidential hopeful vows to eliminate federal labor board, institute nationwide right-to-work

Republican presidential candidate Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin intends to curtail the power of the labor movement through a series of dramatic legal reforms, according to a white paper released by his campaign on Monday.

He forged his national reputation by winning a series of high-profile battles with unions in his home state. Walker limited public employee collective-bargaining rights and instituted a statewide right-to-work regime. The white paper is his first blueprint for how he would impose similar measures nationwide.

Walker’s plan calls for, among other things, the elimination of federal public employee unions; the dissolution of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the main federal organ tasked with administering union elections and investigating unfair labor practice claims; and measures to encourage a nationwide right-to-work regime, in which unions would be prohibited from automatically charging fees to all members of a unionized shop.

He is expected to publicly discuss his proposals at a Las Vegas town hall appearance on Monday afternoon. In a press release, he said he plans to “check the power of the Big Government union bosses, empower individuals and protect taxpayers.”

“Any economic plan that does not bring our federal labor laws into the 21st century is incomplete,” Walker said. “To grow the economy at a higher rate requires a comprehensive approach, and the reform of labor unions is a key part of the plan.”

If implemented in full, Walker’s blueprint would be the most dramatic adjustment to U.S. labor law since the New Deal and the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which inaugurated the modern era of industrial relations.

Charlotte Garden, a professor at Seattle University School of Law, said Walker’s plan would “gut the NLRA” and “go a long way toward reversing a large chunk of the New Deal.”

“The language [in the white paper] about freedom of contract strikes me as a callback to the pre-1937 Supreme Court’s view of substantive due process,” she said. “The court went to great lengths to protect so-called freedom of contract between employers and employees, but of course what resulted was terms and conditions of work that hugely disadvantaged workers, who had very little real bargaining power."

The NLRB, which was established by the NLRA, consists of political appointees, so its orientation toward unions tends to swing, depending on which party controls the White House. Under Barack Obama, the board has issued a flood of pro-union decisions, buoying the labor movement but infuriating Republicans and industry groups.

Most recently, the NLRB widened the joint employer standard, which is used to determine legal liability for working conditions at subcontracted or franchised workplaces. Walker’s white paper describes that ruling, which could expose companies like McDonald’s to vastly expanded responsibility for the working conditions of countless franchise employees, as one of several NLRB “political giveaways to union special interests.”

Garden argued that eradicating the NLRB would cripple the federal government’s ability to adjudicate labor disputes. Walker would delegate the NLRB’s current responsibilities to the federal court system and the National Mediation Board, a federal agency that manages labor relations in the railroad and airline industries. As of 2015, the NLRB has an estimated 1,610 full-time employees; the National Mediation Board has 51 employees.

If the National Mediation Board took over the NLRB’s duties, it would likely create “a tremendous backlog,” said Garden. “It’s hard to overstate the mismatch between capacity and responsibility."

When Walker announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination, the AFL-CIO, America’s biggest labor federation, put out a curt statement describing him as a “national disgrace.” AFL-CIO communications director Eric Hauser repeated the insult Monday in a statement to Al Jazeera.

“Scott Walker can now add one-trick pony to his resume, right underneath national disgrace,” he said. “His campaign is floundering, and so he does what he always does when he can’t think of real solutions — he attacks workers."

Walker’s poll numbers have sagged over the past few months as outsider candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson have risen in polls. Walker’s plan to fight labor unions nationwide may win him some favor from high-level Republican donors and conservative think tanks. The decision to roll out his plan in Las Vegas seems calculated to attract the interest of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, an opponent of the U.S. labor movement and a major contributor to the Republican Party.

The conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, which Walker cites in his white paper, applauded his reform plan in a statement to Al Jazeera, reserving special praise for his proposal to scrap the NLRB.

“The board has outlived its usefulness and should be abolished,” said the institute’s labor policy expert Trey Kovacs. “Government agencies shouldn’t operate to confer benefit on the narrow, private interest of a special interest group like labor unions." 

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