November 10, 2006

First on the Agenda

Like Ezra Klein, I think the top of Congress' to-do list should include passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which will make it easier for unions to organize by authorizing card-check elections. (Jon Cohn made the case for card check here.) Granted, I'm not holding my breath, but if it does happen, then the follow-up move would be to find some way to reverse the National Labor Relations Board's recent Kentucky River ruling about when to classify workers as "supervisors," which, if it's allowed to stand, could easily annul whatever positive effects card check might have.

A brief recap: The Taft-Hartley Act, passed by Congress in 1947, aimed to cripple organized labor by, among other things, declaring that only workers who weren't "supervisors" could join unions. At the time, corporations were genuinely terrified by the onrush of factory foremen who were starting to organize, and so their cronies in Congress declared that any worker with the authority to "hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward or discipline other employees" couldn't join a union. As a result, millions of white-collar "middle management" workers who might have swelled labor's ranks were prevented from organizing.

Anyway, the supervisor clause makes it relatively simple for companies to thwart unionization drives—they can, for instance, offer certain employees a modicum of "supervisory" duties and make them ineligible. I've seen it done many times. To facilitate this, corporations have tried for years to broaden the definition of "supervisor," so that more and more workers would become ineligible to join unions. The recent decisions by the Republican-dominated NLRB do just that, basically allowing employers to make a supervisor out of any worker who assigns or directs other workers and exercises independent judgment. There's loads of flexibility in that definition, and EPI estimates that the ruling could prevent some 8 million new workers from joining unions, maybe more.

In a card-check election, a workplace would become unionized if a majority of eligible workers sign a card saying they want a union. Simple. (The current process involves NLRB-run elections that can take years and are vulnerable to employer manipulation.) But if employers can "promote" workers out of the union at will, or reduce the number of union-eligible workers in the first place, then card-check elections become much less effective. Personally, I'd like Congress to repeal most of Taft-Hartley—if middle-managers want to unionize, there's no reason why they shouldn't—but in the immediate future, dealing with the Kentucky River decisions would make for a nice start. I honestly don't know if Democrats have the votes to pull that off, though.
-- Brad Plumer 4:11 PM || ||