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Time to Restore the Power of the National Labor Relations Act

You may comment on updated processes proposed to boost the National Labor Relations Board, which looks out for workers, says Ellen Dannin.

(Image: People power via Shutterstock)

One in seven Americans – that is 46.5 million of us – live in poverty. And in the wake of the Great Recession, there is more to poverty today than just a bad economy. We have an increasingly unequal society in which the top 1% holds 40% of the wealth. According to a Global Post study, the United States leads the trend toward greater inequality which is rising faster – and already greater – here than in nearly all other developed countries.

Until the Reagan Administration, the minimum wage was set at a level that allowed one wage earner to support a family. The minimum wage has never been required to keep up with inflation nor been benchmarked to ensure that a full-time worker’s wages can keep a family above the poverty line. As a result, many workers’ families have now become destitute.

Why has this happened? The causes of poverty are complex, but one important factor is the decline in union membership, starting in the 1980s, which has led to a decline in union bargaining power.

For decades after the end of World War II, good wages meant that families could be supported by one wage earner, and, in addition, workers could expect company-paid benefits such as paid vacations, defined-benefit pensions, health insurance and sick leave. In addition, union workers had rights to due process and equal protection through their collective bargaining agreement’s grievance procedure and could turn to a job steward for help resolving workplace problems. A two-parent family that was supported by one worker meant that people had time to devote to community involvement.

All of these rights depended on union power, and the decline of unions has meant the loss of these rights in most American workplaces. Now the National Labor Relations Board is addressing concerns about the NLRB election process and inviting public participation concerning the proposed changes.

Why the NLRA Says Unions Matter

Section 1 of the National Labor Relations Act says:

The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners . . . [However, it is possible to eliminate these conditions] by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.

If high union membership is necessary to balance employer power with employee power, how is that to be achieved? Part of the answer is through union organizing and, in the private sector, NLRB elections.

Bringing NLRB Elections Up to Date

NLRB elections are an exercise in democracy. Briefly, an election to choose union representation is held when a substantial number of an employer’s employees sign cards or a petition saying they want to be represented by a specific union. A union can also be recognized as the employees’ representative if a majority of employees sign cards that designate a union as their representative and the employer agrees to recognize the union without an election.

When an election is held, employees vote in a voting booth by secret ballot whether to be represented by a union. The election is overseen and conducted by a National Labor Relations Board agent. The employer and union can appoint election observers and almost always do. Employees enter the polling place, identify themselves, and are given an official ballot which they mark in a voting booth and deposit in a ballot box. When the polls are closed, the ballots are counted in public, and the vote tally is announced.

The National Labor Relations Board is currently offering the public an opportunity to weigh in on proposed new regulations to modernize NLRB election procedures. Information on the process for commenting on the proposed rule revisions can be found at the Federal Register’s website. Comments are due on or before April 7, 2014.

The proposed revisions will allow the NLRB to use 21st century technology to streamline processes and more effectively protect the rights of all parties involved in an NLRB election. In addition, the proposed regulations draw on lessons learned from the federal courts’ decades of experience handling hundreds of thousands of cases each year under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which use modern technology. More details on the proposed changes may be found here.

Restoring the power of the National Labor Relations Act to promote employee bargaining power is an important step toward addressing poverty, affording Americans access to good jobs with benefits and decent pay.

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