Labor - And A Whole Lot More

The President's Anti-Labor Relations Board
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The National Labor Relations Board has become a sick joke under President Bush. Although legally mandated to guarantee working people the opportunity to freely engage in union activities, the NLRB has been doing its best to deny them that vital right.

In their most outrageous decision, the Bush appointees who control the board ruled that an employer can order workers not to "fraternize on duty or off duty, date or become overly friendly with the client's employees or with co-employees." That's what a security guard company in San Francisco actually told its employees.

Now, under those circumstances, it might seem reasonable to assume, it would be rather difficult for workers to get together to talk about forming a union or about anything else relating to their work - or to talk much at all - for fear of being fired.

Which certainly would make for pretty lonely coffee breaks, somewhat less-than-happy after-work hours at the local pub and far fewer dinners at fellow workers' homes. And what if a husband and wife work for the same employer? No pillow talk about the boss?

The board ruling obviously violates the intent of the National Labor Relations Act, which the NLRB is charged with enforcing -- not to mention violating the workers' right to collective action, right of privacy, and right to associate with whom they please, whenever and wherever they please, to consider whatever they please. But given Bush's strong aversion to unions, that's OK with the board's Bush majority.

The decision should force us to seriously consider the question raised by Washington Post columnist Harold Myerson: "Just how much control over our personal lives do the citizens of the land of the free want to accord to our employers?"

There's more - much more - that Bush's NLRB also should answer for. Consider, for instance, the rulings that have made unionization all but impossible for the millions of temporary workers who make up a substantial segment of the workforce and have denied union rights to the graduate students who teach most undergraduate classes at private colleges and universities.

Appointees of President Clinton controlled the NLRB in 2000, when it ruled that temporary employees could bargain together with employers' permanent workers. Both groups of workers, after all, have the same basic concerns about pay, fringe benefits, working conditions and other job-related matters, and the unions that do the bargaining had won the right to represent all of the employers' workers.

The Bush-controlled board nevertheless ruled last year that temporary workers can no longer bargain jointly with permanent workers unless both the employment agencies that place them and the employers who hire them consent to it. Which would be as likely as George Bush appointing AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to a cabinet post.

The graduate teaching assistants - TA's - lost the right to unionization a few months earlier. They commonly put in at least 20 hours of work a week - lecturing, grading papers and exams, leading discussion groups, tutoring and counseling students, and acting as major aides in the research that preoccupies most regular faculty members.

But Bush's board ruled that, however difficult, time-consuming and essential the tasks, those who perform them cannot be considered workers eligible for union rights because they happen to be students.

In another reversal of a Clinton-era decision, the board took discriminatory action against non-union workers in general. It denied them the right that unionized workers have for co-workers or representatives to be present as witnesses and aides when employers call them in to face disciplinary charges.

The board also ruled that a group of disabled janitors couldn't have the union rights granted the able-bodied janitors with whom they worked, because their relationship with the employer was "primarily rehabilitative."

Yet another ruling has helped employers fend off union organizing drives by making it much easier for them to charge that organizers' efforts amount to illegal harassment of their workers, The board also ruled against the once standard practice of requiring employers to provide financial information to back their claims of not being able to afford union contract demands and gave them greater flexibility in locking out workers during contract disputes.

It's no surprise - certainly not to George Bush - that despite surveys showing clearly that at least half of the country's workers want to unionize, barely 12 percent have been able to do so.

Copyright (c) 2005 Dick Meister