The Senate rejected a Republican attempt Tuesday to overturn new regulations designed to give unions quicker representation elections in their effort to organize more workplaces.
The largely party-line 54-45 vote leaves intact National Labor Relations Board rules that are scheduled to take effect April 30. Unions had sought the rules changes while business groups opposed them.
Senate Democrats unanimously supported the new regulations. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the only Republican supporting them.
Under the existing regulations, workers typically vote within 45 to 60 days after a union gathers enough signatures from workers saying they want to hold an election. The new rules could cut that time by days or even weeks by simplifying procedures and putting off some challenges until after the election is held, cutting back hearings and reducing legal delays.
Unions call the changes a modest fix to prevent companies from using stalling tactics to delay a vote while workers can be subject to harassment, threats and even illegal firing. Republicans argue the new rules will lead to “ambush” elections that barely leave company managers enough time to respond or counsel against forming a union.
The NLRB has been the focus of intense partisan bickering since President Obama’s appointments gave the agency its first Democratic majority in nearly a decade. The board has issued a number of rules and decisions favoring unions over business interests.
“The National Labor Relations Board seems to be hellbent on changing processes across the board more for political reasons than for substantive reasons,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said during floor debate.
But Democrats said the rules address some of the most abusive situations where companies manipulate procedures to conduct anti-union campaigns.
“All the board has done is to send a clear message to employers: you can’t abuse the process to buy yourself more time to intimidate workers,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The new rules could help unions expand in the private sector, where membership has dwindled to about 6.9 percent of all workers. Retailers like Target and Wal-Mart are concerned that the new rules will encourage unions to step up organizing at their stores.
“With only about 5 percent average unionization, retailers are low-hanging fruit for union organizers,” said David French, a vice president of government relations for the National Retail Federation.
The measure had little chance of passing the Democrat-controlled Senate and faced a White House veto threat. But it forced some Democrats who face tough re-election bids to take a stand on an issue that has riled business groups.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers designated the vote a “key vote” - used to score members of Congress each year on their records.