US labor board under fire in latest union-Republican clash
Amid unrest over perceived economic injustices, some Republicans vow to abolish the National Labor Relations Board. The labor board, they say, is impeding economic recovery. Can they succeed?
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Other big labor news may make moot the NLRB's pursuit of Boeing. On Wednesday, Boeing and its machinists union advanced toward a new contract, hinged upon the workers dropping their complaint to the NLRB. And a looming strike by railroad employees – which could hamper Christmas shipments – is being mediated by another federal agency. Republicans have said they'll pass legislation to keep rail workers from striking if a deal isn't reached by Dec. 6.Skip to next paragraph
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Today's labor battles in Washington are “largely symbolic” because the real battles over union rights have moved to the states, says Colin Gordon, a labor historian at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Republican governors and GOP-led state legislatures are pushing to curtail bargaining rights for public-sector workers, who now represent the bulk of unionized employees in the US and whose plight lies outside NLRB purview. That battle continued Wednesday in New Hampshire, where Republican lawmakers failed to override Democratic Gov. John Lynch's veto of a right-to-work law.
The NLRB has faced extinction before. Originally part of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which allowed the president to regulate industry, the Labor Relations Board disappeared when the US Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. The NLRB was resurrected in 1934 by executive order.
More recently, the board has struggled to operate. Political battles during the Bush administration left it with only two members, whose votes were nullified by the US Supreme Court in 2010, which ruled that two members did not a quorum make. What's more, its general counsel, who initiates legal actions like the one against Boeing, has yet to be formally approved by the Senate.
Republicans say their attacks on the NLRB are actually counterpunches – attempts to gain congressional control of what Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota called “a blizzard of regulations … coming from virtually every department and agency.”
For now, the NLRB's future is cloudy, in both the near term and the far term.
“The Obama administration has said to agencies like the NLRB, 'If you guys could actually operate as your charter says, what would you do differently?' and [the proposed reforms] we're seeing now are attempts to … look at what they can do better,” says John Revitte, a labor expert at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. “Normally these would be inside-baseball-type issues, but they've gotten caught up in a very serious and important election cycle ... that relates to questions about how America looks at work.”
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