The National Labor Relations Board is finding itself in the political cross hairs once again.
In a move cheered by labor unions and slammed by business groups and top Republicans on Capitol Hill, the agency on Tuesday proposed new rules that would, in effect, make it easier and quicker for workers to form unions. Labor officials, a key base of support for President Obama, have long complained that corporate management has used procedural and legal delays as a way to frustrate organizing drives.
The move comes as the NLRB, now dominated by Mr. Obama's appointees, already is in a sharp confrontation with the business community over its move to block the opening of a major new non-union manufacturing plant by aerospace giant Boeing Corp. in South Carolina because of suspected labor law violations.
The new organizing rules brought a sharp response from the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, John Kline, who vowed to fight the proposal.
"Not only will this misguided proposal to expedite union elections undermine an employer's lawful right to communicate with his or her employees, it will cripple a worker's ability to make an informed decision," the Minnesota Republican warned.
But labor backers say the move will correct a longstanding tilt in labor laws that, they say, has led to a long-term decline in private sector union membership rates for U.S. workers.
"When workers petition for an election to form a union, they should actually get an election," said John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "That's a basic tenet of democracy."
The NLRB said the proposal would "better insure that employees' votes may be recorded accurately, efficiently and speedily."
But the board's sole Republican nominee, Brian Hayes, argued the proposal would produce "quickie elections" — which could be held in as short as 10 to 21 days after an organizing petition is filed — that give companies little time to prepare their case against forming a union.
Most workplace elections now take up to two months to be held after a union gathers enough signatures for workers at a particular site to file a petition. The new plan could cut that time by days or even weeks by simplifying procedures, deferring litigation and setting shorter deadlines for hearings and filings.
Union leaders were quick to hail the NLRB proposal. Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry said the NLRB proposal represents "a positive step for workers who want to exercise their fundamental right to decide for themselves whether to form a union."
"Too many workers have seen their efforts to join together on the job defeated by costly litigation and delaying tactics by their employer," she added. "Many never get the chance to make their voices heard at the ballot box."
Mr. Podesta said that in over a third of the petitions filed by employees for a union vote, the election does not even occur.
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's leading business group, said it was "strenuously opposed" to the NLRB's proposal because employers will no longer get the 45 to 60 days to challenge the organizing effort that they are accustomed to.
It is a "blatant attempt to give unions the upper hand," according to Randy Johnson, the Chamber's senior vice president of labor, immigration, and employee benefits, adding that it will "tilt the playing field in organized labor's favor."
The NLRB already has been a target of GOP and business anger for its clash with aerospace giant Boeing over the company's new manufacturing plant in South Carolina. The agency has filed a motion to move the work — and some 1,000 jobs — back to Washington state, where the company's original plant is still located. NLRB officials contend that Boeing officials were illegally punishing union workers by moving additional work out of state.
The political battle may find even find its way inside Mr. Obama's Cabinet.
The president's pick to head the Commerce Department, former utility executive John Bryson, criticized the NLRB's handling of the Boeing case at his confirmation hearing Tuesday in the Senate. Mr. Bryson served on the board of Boeing until recently.
"I think it's not the right judgment," Mr. Bryson said, under questioning from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican.
The new regulations are likely to keep the NLRB a focus of partisan battles as the 2012 election season heats up.
"If President Obama is serious about job creation as he repeatedly claims, he must stop the anti-job creation menace that his NLRB has become," said Fred Wszolek, spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute, which has long criticized the agency.
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