Labor law from Wagner to Taft-Hartley

Last Wednesday, I flagged an excellent book by William Forbath tracing the growth of US labor from the days of the Knights of Labor up to Norris-LaGuardia on the cusp of the New Deal.

Now, let me do the same for Christopher Tomlins' The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880-1960.

Obviously, the first part of the book covers the same period as the Forbath, though majoring on different elements, such as the intellectual underpinnings of early US unionism - Marx is even mentioned.

But it then takes the story on (mentioning only cursorily the Black-Connery Thirty Hours Bill, strangely - my piece thereon) to the evolution of the Wagner Act and beyond.

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Redefining "Supervisor" Under Labor Law

There's an important new bill in Congress that hasn't gotten much attention as of yet. Senators Dodd, Durbin, and Kennedy, and Reps. Rob Andrews and Don Young have just introduced the Re-empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Tradeworkers (RESPECT) Act, S. 969 in the Senate and H.R. 1644 in the House. Here's the short summary. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act -- legislation meant to emasculate the 1935 National Labor Relations Act -- excluded employees classified as "supervisors" from the protections of the NLRA. Back in October of 2006, a National Labor Relations Board's decision in what's known as the Kentucky River cases opened the gates on employees exempt from labor protections by deciding that charge nurses are indeed "supervisors." These are RNs, you see, who have the responsibility to assign other nurses, LPNs (licensed practical nurses), and other medical staff to take care of certain patients, and who may generally oversee patient care in their units during their shifts. The Kentucky River decision hinged on the definition of "supervisor" under the law in 29 U.S.C. § 152 (11):

Any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or responsibly to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend such action, if in connection with the foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment.

The gist of the statute, of course, is someone who operates as management, with the clear capacity to dramatically shape the work lives of employees. As the dissent in Kentucky River said, charge nurses aren't "vested with such genuine management prerogatives." They cannot hire and they cannot fire. In its decision, the NLRB, however, went strict constructionist -- saying that it could only rely upon an on-their-face reading of words like "assign" and "direct." So in comes the RESPECT Act. The RESPECT Act is a five-line bill crafted to combat Kentucky River. All it does is this:

Section 2(11) of the National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C. 152(11)) is amended -- (1) by inserting "and for a majority of the individual's worktime" after "interest of the employer'; (2) by striking assign," and (3) by striking "or responsibility to direct them,".

Why would the NLRB make the Kentucky River call in the first place? An NLRB cynic would say that expanding the definition of "supervisor" expands the opportunity for employers to give some employees minimal supervisory roles in order to keep them from unionizing. As it stands, a common tactic among employers trying to subvert a union certification process is to claim that some number of employees are actually supervisors -- creating confusion and slowing the process while who is and isn't one gets sorted out. There's been a constant battle in the Bush years between pro-labor forces and a National Labor Relations Board that sees its role as limiting the ability of workers to organize a majority, certify a union, and get to initial contract.

Organizing Chicago's Resurrection

Clinton Young, Resurrection employeeThe Employee Free Choice Act was reintroduced in the House this week as H.R. 800, with 232 co-sponsors -- mostly Dems and a few Republicans. What the bill does is three main things: establishes a "card check" system wherein a union is recognized after a majority of employees sign a document indicating that they want representation, strengthens penalties for labor law violations, and reforms how employers and employees come to an initial contract agreement.

I'm going to be working with the AFL-CIO on Employee Free Choice for the next few months. As part of that work, I spent three days in Chicago at the beginning of this week, talking to nurses, housekeepers, organizers, and other who have been working with AFSCME Council 31 to organize a union around the Resurrection Health Care hospital system. I'm pretty new to labor issues and hoped in Chicago to try to begin to learn the answer a single question: why doesn't the current National Labor Relations Board process for unionization work?

What I found in Chicago was that there are several strong currents at play in the Resurrection campaign. After the flip are some rough ideas on four initial themes.

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Why America Needs Employee Free Choice Act

Almost one-in-five union organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their activities in a union election campaign. This revelation came last week in a report (pdf) by The Center for Economic Policy and Research.

"Aggressive actions by employers -- often including illegal firings -- have significantly undermined the ability of U.S. workers to unionize their workplaces," said John Schmitt, CEPR senior economist and lead author of the paper. "With the legal penalties for such actions being so slight, employers can break the law to head-off organizing efforts and face almost no real repercussions."

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Labor Built this Country - It's Time to Take it Back

Well this seems like something we could get done next cycle. Jeff Farmer is the director of organizing for the Teamsters. I'm going to thank them preemptively for our new servers, since that's what's going to keep this site running on election day. -Matt

Organized Labor was dealt another damaging blow last week by President Bush's cronies on the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB ruled 3-2, along party lines, that millions of nurses and other workers are "supervisors," and therefore excluded from collective bargaining rights.

The so-called "Kentucky River decision" was pretty much expected from the Big Business shills who sit on the NLRB. Not only will 8 million workers lose their labor law protections, including their right to form unions, but companies will be even more emboldened under the new expansive definition of "supervisor" to reclassify workers in their effort to dismantle organizing drives.

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