Even as one major figure left the union scene while another arrived in the last few months—Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern departed as newly appointed National Labor Relations Board Commissioner Mark Becker came on board—labor policy remains poised for significant action.
Stern retired from his 14-year reign over the 2.2 million-member SEIU on May 8, succeeded by Mary Kay Henry, an SEIU executive vice president who unexpectedly won against Stern’s handpicked choice in the board election, Anna Burger, head of the Change to Win coalition.
In March, President Barack Obama granted a recess appointment to Becker after his nomination had been filibustered by Senate Republicans and Democrats worried that he was too radical in his pro-union approach.
Although the SEIU is in flux, many observers say that the organization will continue to wield significant influence in business and politics, as demonstrated by Henry’s vow to invest $4 million to bolster private-sector organizing and $4 million in gubernatorial races.
The business lobby asserts that Becker’s arrival at the NLRB will position the Democratic-majority board to implement aspects of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill stalled on Capitol Hill that would make it easier for workers to organize.
Corporate fears were stoked by the National Mediation Board overturning 76 years of precedent in early May when it ruled to allow rail and aviation organizing elections to be decided by a majority of workers voting, not a majority of workers in a unit.
“We are in a period where there is a potential for revolutionary changes in the labor movement and labor relations,” says Hal Coxson, a shareholder at Ogletree Deakins in Washington.
Business groups have succeeded so far in stopping EFCA, which lacks the required 60 Senate votes to overcome a filibuster. They did not stop Becker’s appointment.
“We are going to increase our vigilance of the board and its operation,” says Keith Smith, director of employment and labor policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.
In a speech earlier this year, NLRB Chairwoman Wilma Liebman downplayed the board’s ability to influence labor-management relations, given statutory constraints, precedent, judicial review and board turnover.
“I do not think that fundamental changes in labor law—as opposed to incremental improvements—can reasonably be expected to come from the National Labor Relations Board, whoever serves there,” Liebman says.
The newly constituted NLRB, however, could change the complexion of union campaigns by limiting them to seven or 14 days as opposed to the current NLRB guideline of 42 days.
“They have the discretion to set the election time frames,” Coxson says.
The board also could allow unions to use corporate e-mail for organizing efforts. Michael Lotito, a partner at Jackson Lewis in San Francisco, says that companies should brace themselves.
“In Latin, labor board now means ‘the employer loses,’ ” Lotito says. “The bias is there.”
Unions are raring to go.
“We are now experiencing in our firm a significant uptick in union petitions being filed for elections,” Coxson says. “It’s almost as if they can’t wait any longer for EFCA.”