2013-03-26 23:20:45

Labor Law Loses Its Watchdog

The day-to-day application of key federal protections for workers’ collective bargaining rights is becoming paralyzed, say legal experts and union organizers, as employers across the country realize that a recent federal court decision effectively allows them to ignore the enforcement of the landmark National Labor Relations Act.

The implementation of the New Deal-era law—which protects the right of most workers in private industry to form unions and negotiate collectively with employers—is reported to be slowly grinding to a halt as result of a January 25 court decision in Noel Canning v. NLRB [PDF]. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that President Barack Obama improperly employed the recess appointments clause of the constitution to name new members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This means, in effect, that almost 800 NLRB actions taken since the January 2012 recess appointments are unenforceable and that the current board is powerless to implement new orders. Or, as former NLRB Chairman William B. Gould IV tells In These Times: “Compliance with NLRB enforcement is voluntary for employers at this point.”

“There is plenty of evidence that it is having a huge impact on the ground,” says Lynn Rhinehart, co-general counsel of the AFL-CIO. She describes the decision’s effect on union organizing campaigns across the country as “deep and problematic.”

Because of the Canning decision, Rhinehart explains, any employer can now go to a federal appeals court and be granted an indefinite delay in enforcement of any NLRB action taken in the last 14 months. More than 60 employers have filed such cases since the January 25 decision, NLRB spokesperson Nancy Cleeland confirms, and more are expected. All of these cases are officially being held in abeyance pending U.S. Supreme Court action to either affirm or overturn the Canning ruling. That could take up to a year, Cleeland estimates.

Many employers aren’t bothering to formally request a delay, but simply ignoring the NLRB rulings that remain in legal limbo. A March 23 story in the Huffington Post details how West Virginia union members mistreated at the hands of anti-union coal operators must now wait indefinitely to see their jobs and backpay restored. Similarly, some Connecticut nursing home workers are being deprived of their legal wages and benefits in this way, says Deborah Chernoff, a spokesperson for the New England division of the healthcare workers union 1199SEIU. In a case notable for both its bitterness and complexity, strikers at five nursing homes operated by HealthBridge are back at work, but not at the compensation levels ordered by the NLRB last year. Instead, they are receiving lower wages and reduced benefits ordered by a bankruptcy judge, and the NLRB is powerless to enforce its order or challenge the bankruptcy court's decision, Chernoff says.

Meanwhile, the decision has stopped some organizing campaigns in their tracks. Ann Twomey, president of the New Jersey-based Health Professionals and Allied Employees union, says that about 200 nurses fighting for a union at Memorial Hospital of Salem County are “on hold” because of the legal uncertainty at the NLRB. The employer—notoriously anti-union Community Health Systems (CHS)—is stalling talks toward a first contract, despite the union’s 2010 victory in a representation election, Twomey says. Normally in such a case, the union could call on the NLRB to order the employer to the negotiating table—but that’s not an option until the legal authority of the NLRB is re-asserted, says Twomey. “The nurses are functioning as a union and are doing their best,” she says, “But they don’t have a contract, and there isn’t a way forward” without the NLRB.

Resolution of outstanding legal issues in older cases is even affected, says Michael Beranbaum, organizing director of Washington State-based Teamsters Joint Council 28. A Teamsters strike against Oak Harbor Freight Lines in 2008 created legal issues around pensions and health care benefits, he tells In These Times, but resolution is being further stalled because the trucking company went to federal court seeking new delays under the Canning decision. “This is an example of the pitiful mess in Washington, D.C.,” resulting from Republican Party obstruction of President Obama’s legitimate appointment powers, he says.

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