American Workers: Shackled to Labor Law

Article excerpt

Does the National Labor Relations Act do more harm than good?

Republicans hate the National Labor Relations Board. But they're not the only ones. In speeches to workers and testimony in Congress in the '8os and '905, then-AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland repeatedly declared that union members would be better served by "the law of the jungle." Some union presidents agreed, including Richard Trumka, who now heads the AFL-CIO. In 1987, Trumka called for abolishing both the law's "provisions that hamstring labor" and "the affirmative protections of labor that it promises but does not deliver."

In other words, it's not just Mitt Romney who argues the National Labor Relations Board - which interprets and enforces labor law - does more harm than good.

That's in part because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), as amended by Congress and interpreted by the courts, bans or restricts labor's most effective tactics. The occupations of workplaces that fueled momentum for the NLRA, passed by Congress in 1935, are now illegal under it. The aggressive strikes - shutting down workplaces or even entire cities - that forged the modern labor movement have largely been replaced with strikes that are essentially symbolic. While anti-choice groups can target Planned Parenthood by pressuring the Komen Foundation not to fund it, and progressives can hurt Rush Limbaugh by calling on advertisers to drop his show, unions face unique legal restrictions on mounting equivalent "secondary boycott" campaigns that spread a struggle throughout a supply chain.

Of course, when Republican presidential candidates bash the NLRB, it's for restricting business, not unions. On paper, the NLRA actually commits the government "to promote collective bargaining" and requires most companies to recognize and negotiate with unions that win elections. It made it illegal for companies to spy on, threaten or retaliate against workers for union activism or other "concerted activity."

But reality has proven to be a different story. "This labor law is a scam" says Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America. "It is garbage. . . . It's a fucking lie."

Getting around a failing law

During an organizing drive, managers can legally hold mandatory antiunion meetings in which they predict that unionization would shut down the company. Even when workers win a union election, 52 percent of the time they haven't won a union contract a year later, because managers can legally sabotage union contract negotiations by refusing to concede anything. If a union contract is in place, once it's up for re- negotiation managers can legally lock out union members, denying them any work until they accept a worse contract or vote out the union.

And companies don't restrict themselves to these legal union-busting tactics. In 57 percent of union elections, employers threaten to shut down the worksite. In 34 percent, they fire union activists. When a union activist is illegally fired, it's difficult to prove that the firing was retaliatory- and even if the government sides with the union, generally the worst that can happen to management is being forced to reinstate the worker with back pay. This process often takes years, which can be more than enough time to quash an organizing campaign. Fred Feinstein, who served under President Clinton as the NLRB s top prosecutor, says the penalties available against employers "don't provide any deterrence" for companies set on breaking a union.

Efforts to reform this legal imbalance have been failing for decades. Where labor is succeeding, it's often in spite of or outside of the law, not because of it. Major unions have abandoned government-run elections in favor of "comprehensive campaigns" that leverage some combination of worker, consumer, media and political pressure to extract agreements from companies not to terrorize or stonewall. By blocking tracks, spilling grain, and defying a restraining order in Longview, Wash. …