Bush's War On Unions
October 10, 2006
Former U.S. Congressman David Bonior is Chair of American Rights at Work , a workers’ rights advocacy organization in Washington, DC. He also is a professor of labor studies at Wayne State University.
On October 3 , the working world became a great deal more difficult for nurses, and it may get worse very soon some 8 million more workers. They are losing the right to be represented by labor unions and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and safer working conditions. Workers’ rights were severely curtailed by the very group of people charged with protecting America’s workforce from assault, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
In a series of cases widely viewed as among the most important the National Labor Relations Board will decide this decade, the Labor Board created a new definition of “supervisor.” But, this is not a semantic discussion. Changing who and how to classify an employee as a supervisor could mean depriving millions of workers the opportunity to come together to form unions.
The decisions come out of a series of cases known as Kentucky River in which the NLRB was charged by the Supreme Court review supervisor status. The NLRB’s new interpretation invites employers to classify nurses and many low-level employees with minor authority as supervisors to confer supervisory status. In the working world, supervisors are seen as managers, hiring, firing, and granting overtime or vacation time to employees. Most importantly, supervisors are not eligible to join unions under labor law. Now, a nurse who oversees other nurses or technicians—even if they don’t have the power to hire or fire—may be regarded as supervisor and stripped of union rights.
By expanding the definition of supervisor, the NLRB has provided employers a new method of unionbusting—reclassifying employees as supervisors. While the ruling could spill over to other fields in which workers give direction to fellow workers, like construction and communications, the most detrimental repercussions of the decisions will be in the health care industry. Not having enough employees to form a union means the nursing profession will lack bargaining power. Health care employers are now free to overwork and underpay their nurses through an even higher patient-to-nurse ratio, stalled wages, and forced overtime.
This ruling is an unfortunate continuation of the NLRB’s recent ruling record. Time and time again, the majority sides with business, directly against the interests of workers. Because the NLRB is appointed by President Bush, it reflects his wishes for management to gain the upper hand against workers. The “Bush Board” has sought to override the labor law’s intent to protect workers in favor of absolving employers of legal responsibility to respect workers’ inalienable freedoms of association and free speech. The Bush Board has ruled against teaching assistants, workers with disabilities, and temporary workers. At their core, these rulings are really about diminishing labor unions at the behest of corporations that do not want to pay decent salaries and benefits.
Workers’ choice to form unions to improve their lives has been eroded, in every practical sense, even before this groundbreaking rewriting of supervisory status. Employers are increasingly using aggressive maneuvers to exploit already weak labor laws. When faced with organizing drives, 30 percent of employers fire pro-union workers, 49 percent threaten to close a worksite if the union prevails, and 51 percent coerce workers into opposing unions with bribery or favoritism. Every 23 minutes, a worker in this country is fired or discriminated against for exercising the basic human right to form or join a union. These unionbusting tactics have gone virtually unpunished and unchecked by the NLRB, jeopardizing millions of workers’ rights to form unions and collectively bargain.
This NLRB ruling sends a clear message about how President Bush and his allies envision America. They see a country without workers’ rights, without collective bargaining. They see a union-free America that happens with a turn of phrase, when a worker becomes a supervisor by being called a “team member” or “associate.” They see a country where corporations and CEOs have all the power and freedom.
Eroding the ability of workers to choose unions has occurred in tandem with the squeezing of the middle class. As fewer workers have access to labor unions, real wages have dropped, benefit packages have diminished, and less people have company pensions. The federal minimum wage has been frozen for a decade. Many of today’s economic woes can be attributed to the diminishment of the unions, a result of the corporate and conservative attack on workers.
The time for congressional action is now. The people who work hard to make America work won’t be hoodwinked any longer by leaders who profess to support freedom and democracy but then pull the rug out from under them. Because the recent rulings digress from what Congress intended when it issued labor laws, they must rewrite the rules. We need to be clear that America’s workers have the fundamental human right to collectively bargain. We must support the freedom to climb the ladder to the middle class via labor unions.