Labor Opposition May Scuttle `Employee Team' Bill

Article excerpt

A move to allow nonunion businesses to set up teams of employees to address working conditions won by a narrow vote in Congress last week, but it may be a short-lived victory.

Opponents, including organized labor and President Bill Clinton's administration, are dimming the chances for the legislation, which they say is a thinly disguised attempt to permit the resurgence of "company unions" that would thwart attempts to unionize.

The measure would amend federal labor laws banning nonunion employers from hand-picking groups of workers to determine such things as wages and benefits. The House approved the bill Wednesday by a vote of 221-202; a similar version is pending in a Senate committee.

In recent years, many companies have taken a team approach to management, giving employees more say in how the companies are run on issues such as safety and productivity. But some of the team plans have run afoul of the National Labor Relations Board, which has said the teams crossed the line and got into areas barred by the law.

Supporters of the bill argued it was needed to give companies more leeway in improving cooperation between workers and bosses.

"These are a very flexible, diverse kind of way to get employees involved in making decisions which otherwise would have to be made entirely by management," said Rep. James M. Talent, R-Chesterfield, one of the bill's leading backers.

He said the bill would not end the ban on "company unions" and that employers would still be barred from interfering with workers' attempts to organize.

Leading the opposition on the House floor was Rep. William L. Clay, D-St. Louis.

He said the bill "undermines workplace democracy and threatens the very foundation of collective bargaining." He said the bill wasn't needed, as evidenced by the many such plans now in effect without challenge.

One such plan struck down by the NLRB was set up by EFCO Corp., a company that makes windows in the southwest Missouri town of Monett. In March, an administrative law judge ordered the company to disband its four "employee involvement committees" because they were management-dominated labor organizations barred by the National Labor Relations Act.

Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., cited the order in a letter May 10 to Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Ashcroft said the case was one of 16 suits filed by the board since 1993 that have had "a chilling effect on the implementation of such programs by companies. In order for businesses to succeed in today's economy, labor laws must be updated to allow workers to have input on all levels of the decision making process without causing the company to be hauled into court. …