A Little Courage on the Right to Unionize

I've long argued that the Obama administration, despite Republican obstructionism, could do a lot to help ordinary people in this economy through executive action.

On Monday, the National Labor Relations Board began two days of hearings on a proposed rule change that would make it just a little harder for employers to stonewall and harass workers who want to vote in a union.

Under the present rules, management can stall almost indefinitely, while they subject employees to captive-audience meetings, threaten to close the facility, and fire pro-union workers.

The proposed rule change, though far from the full Employee Free Choice Act that the Obama declined to make a legislative priority while it had a majority in Congress, would reduce the time for management to stall once workers have filed a petition for a unionization election. And if management wants to appeal the validity of the petition, under the new rules the appeal will come after the election, not before. The rule would also give unions more equal access to employees as a counterweight to management captive audience sessions.

As Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project testified Monday, much of the decline in real wages is the result of declining union membership. And that erosion is less the consequence of workers not choosing unions than of management breaking the law.

The labor board's proposed changes are hardly revolutionary, but to hear business elites and their Republican allies tell it, you'd think Bolshevism was around the corner. The Republicans hope to shut down the NLRB by staving its appropriations and refusing to conform board members when existing terms expire.

Back when we had a chief executive of whom labor leader John L. Lewis could truthfully say, "President Roosevelt wants you to join the union," the power of the executive branch was wielded so that workers could meaningfully exercise their rights under the Wagner Act. During World War II, war production contracts were denied to corporations that tried to bust unions. The new NLRB rules are a far cry from that clarity and boldness -- but they're a start.

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