The War over Obama's Labor Agenda

President Barack Obama, with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, center, and Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, speaks during a meeting with members of his economic team in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 4, 2016.

Welcome to The American Prospect’s weekly roundup highlighting the latest developments in the labor movement. 

(Compiled by Justin Miller—Edited by Harold Meyerson

The National Labor Relations Board is reaffirming its view that labor law must now address the brave new world of the fissured workplace—where workers are often separated from their actual employer by layers of subcontractors and staffing agencies. On Monday, the board announced a decision on the case Miller & Anderson, ruling that unions that want to represent bargaining units including direct employees as well as “permatemps,” contract workers, and other indirect workers that share a “community of interest” are no longer required to get permission from the parent company.

The old standard, established by George W. Bush’s NLRB in 2004, which required unions to gain such parent-employer consent, allowed companies to use staffing agencies and subcontractors as a barrier to organizing drives. Under the new ruling, a nurses union, for example, can now more readily expand bargaining units at a hospital to include registered nurses who are directly employed by the hospital, as well as nurses who work for staffing agencies hired by the hospital.

In an increasingly fractured world of labor relations, it’s hard to understate how big of a deal this is for easing union organizing efforts. And coming less than a year after its Browning Ferris ruling that established a bold new standard for defining when parent companies are joint employers of subcontracted workers, the Miller & Anderson decision is yet another important step that increases employer accountability to their workers by expanding the responsibilities of joint employers.

Not only does the decision mark an emerging new jurisprudence on labor relations, it also serves to burnish President Obama’s second-term record on labor and worker rights, which includes a rash of bold new policies enacted through executive power.

However, enacting new regulations and coming out with new NLRB decisions is just the first step. The second, more consequential step for determining Obama’s lasting legacy on these matters is to withstand an onslaught of attacks both in the Republican Congress and in the courts.

Just last month, a federal judge in Texas issued a preliminary injunction stopping Obama’s new “persuader” rule, which required companies to disclose their hiring of union-busting consultants. Big business is also working in the courts to overturn the NLRB’s Browning Ferris standard, while Republicans try to beat it back in Congress.

As Politico reports, this week the House Appropriations Committee is marking up the Labor Department appropriations bill that House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers says would “rein in the out-of-control regulations that hurt our economy and job growth." By that, he means the bill would block just about any pro-labor regulation or ruling that came out of the Obama administration or NLRB in the past two years. That would include blocking the new federal overtime rule and fiduciary rule, for which Labor Secretary (and vice presidential contender) Tom Perez has won notoriety among Republicans for shepherding through. The bill would also block the NLRB’s rulings that established the joint-employer standard, affirmed the legality of micro-units of workers for collective-bargaining purposes, and sped up union elections.

On top of that, a House-Senate conference committee will meet Wednesday to hash out the details of legislation that would exempt defense contractors (i.e., the largest group of federal contractors) from adhering to Obama’s 2014 executive order that requires federal contractors to disclose past labor-law violations. Democrats have pledged to block the Republican offensive in conference, but it remains to be seen whether they are successful.

Miller & Anderson is the latest entry in Obama’s impressive labor legacy, but the full picture of what exactly will survive the pending legal and political attacks won’t be settled until he’s out of the White House. 

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