WASHINGTON – For union labor – really most wage-earning Americans – it has been many tiny steps forward, but leaving them facing some monster setbacks.
The government’s National Labor Relations Board has been under solid Democratic Party and President Obama’s control only since 2013. Before that, the board had been without a working majority for about a decade.
The NLRB, created during the Great Depression, is a kind of supreme court that, mostly in unionized states, conducts union certification elections, oversees certain management behaviors and enforces worker contracts and rules.
The labor board recently announced a series of decisions that promise – or, threaten – to rewrite rules that both unions and companies believe have shaped the country’s emergence into a new economy since the Reagan administration.
Unions believe this new model has frozen or reduced wages in real time, crippled unions in the private sector and fostered ever-widening disparities between worker and corporate compensation.
In general, managers believe their post-Reagan framework allows them to compete effectively on a world scale in an era of lightning-swift changes in technology.
Here are examples of what the NLRB has done in recent months:
• Jointly owned companies, such as franchised fast-food operations, can be held responsible for labor law violations, reversing a 30-year-old rule.
• Companies can be held responsible for collection of union dues after a labor contract expires.
• Companies violate the labor law when they deny an employee the right to union representation during a disciplinary hearing or suspend him for refusing to take part in his own investigation.
• An employer’s “veiled threat” to walk away from negotiations can void an election on whether or not to create a union.
• “Bonuses” paid to employees by managers just before a certification can invalidate such an election.
These are small and unaccustomed wins for organized labor. Overwhelming these pluses from a resurgent NLRB are real-world elements of the economy and Washington politics. Labor’s problems come from an economy that is either shedding or failing to grow private sector jobs.
Because of a monetary policy begun by President Bill Clinton, pursued by Republican President George W. Bush and continued for all six of the Obama years, American manufacturing jobs are either stagnant or shrinking.
Alan Tonelson of RealityCheck reported Friday that U.S. manufacturing lost 17,000 jobs last month, the worst performance in that sector since July 2013.
American manufacturers are hamstrung by U.S. policies that allow Asian manufacturers to artificially underprice their exports by devaluing their currency. This situation was aggravated last month when communist China devalued its currency again to shore up its wobbly economy.
China’s and South Korea’s currency games account for most of the loss of America’s plant jobs, once a bedrock of the union movement. Bush had 16 chances and Obama 12 opportunities to call China on its currency cheating and threaten import tariffs, but both looked the other way.
Labor believes the manufacturing and other private employment sectors are even more radically threatened by Obama’s next legacy vote – the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other nations. The provisions of the TPP are still largely secret.
Lastly, there is Obama’s visa program, a continuation of a Bush initiative. Under section H-1B of the immigration law, companies that claim there is a shortage of highly skilled labor can issue thousands of visas to immigrants.
A year ago, well-paid American workers were ordered by Disney to train 250 foreign workers, mostly from India, with H-1B visas to do their jobs, according to the New York Times. The foreign workers would be paid less.