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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Nov 30, 2011, 7:30 pm

Crazy Day at NLRB: Shutdown Averted, Boeing Case Settled

BY Mike Elk

More peaceful days may be ahead for the federal agency in charge of enforcing labor law and mediating conflicts

WASHINGTON D.C.—In one of the most tense votes ever held in the history of the National Labor Relations Board, today the federal agency voted to proceed with enacting a new rule to curtail employers' ability to appeal workplace unionization elections before they are held.

The tension was in part due to GOP NLRB Member Brian Hayes threat to resign in protest of the vote, as I reported last week. His resignation would have effectively shut down the agency, because it would have lost a quorum of members needed to issue rulings.

The NLRB voted to move forward with a limited portion of a union election reform rule  related to eliminating pre-union election voter eligibility determination appeals that currently delay union elections. Under the rule, such appeals would be held after a union election is already held. Now the rule will be prepared for final "publication," after which time it will be voted on again.

“The vast majority of NLRB-supervised elections, about 90 percent, are held by agreement of the parties—employees, union and employer—in an average of 38 days from the filing of a petition. The amendments I propose would not affect those agreed-to elections” NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce said today. He continued:

Rather, the amendments would apply to the minority of elections which are held up by needless litigation and disputes which need not be resolved prior to an election. In these contested elections, employees have to wait an average of 101 days to cast a ballot. And as several employees testified at our hearing in July, that period can be disruptive and painful for all involved.

Hayes had threatened to resign because he felt that the process and traditions of the NLRB were not being followed in the run up to consideration of the rule change. He said was not consulted properly as the agency reviewed 65,000 comments received about the rule, and that he did not have proper time to issue a dissenting rule change, among other things.

Hayes later explained why he did not resign from the NLRB, saying, “First, it’s not in my nature to be obstructionist. Second, as a practical matter, my resignation might not mute the issue… Lastly, however, and most importantly, I believe resignation would cause the very same harm and collateral damage to the reputation of this agency and to the interests of its constituents as would the issuance of a controversial rule without three affirmative votes and in the wake of a flawed decisional process. I cannot be credibly critical of the latter and engage myself in the former.”

Polarizing Boeing case finally settled

In other news—but very much related to the NLRB being a target of Republicans—the Machinists Union (IAM) and Boeing have settled their dispute, which resulted in a high-profile NLRB complaint filed against Boeing for illegal retailiation against striking union members. The IAM and the company reached agreement on a new four-year contract, which contains language ensuring that production of the 737 Max airliner will be in Renton, Wash.

IAM District Lodge 751 President Tom Wroblewski said that "if union members vote to approve the deal in the coming weeks, the union would inform the NLRB that it has no further grievances with Boeing,” the AP reported. The contract agreement was reached 10 months before the union's current contract with Boeing expires, which is highly unusual. The contract also reportedly allows for pay and benefit increases over its four years.

NLRB General Counsel Lafe Solomon said: “The tentative agreement announced today between Boeing and the Machinists Union is a very significant and hopeful development. The tentative agreement is subject to ratification by the employees, and, if ratified, we will be in discussions with the parties about the next steps in the [complaint] process."

A Boeing spokesman "called the new contract with the union 'a starting point of a new relationship' with the union," the AP reported.

If the union drops its lawsuit against Boeing, the NLRB may stop pursuing its complaint against the company.

However, Capitol Hill observers still expect congressional Republicans to continue issuing attacks on the NLRB. “The war against the workers’ rights has been going on for more than a year and I do not think they will stop," said Aaron Albright, a spokesman for Democrats on the House Education and Workforce Committee. “I do not think they will stop their obsession with breaking up workers’ unions.”

Earlier in the day, at a special forum on the attacks on the National Labor Relations Board and workers’ rights sponsored by the National Labor Relations Board, University of Texas Labor Law Professor Jules Getman said the attack on the NLRB was “an almost brilliant strategy by the right wing. Attacks on workers are unpopular as in Ohio, but attacks on governments are fairly popular. So if you can make it about government, you can succeed in taking away the rights of workers.”

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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