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Business Vs. Unions Now Moves Off the Hill

The Card-Check Bill That Would Have Made Unionizing Easier Is Dead, but the Fight Goes On

Coming off a successful lobbying fight that all but eliminated the prospects of Members signing off on a card-check bill in the foreseeable future, the downtown business community is training its sights on the National Labor Relations Board for initiatives that may make it easier for workers to unionize.

“The card-check coalition has pivoted,” said Jade West, senior vice president of government relations at the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. “Its mission is still the ultimate defeat of anything that looks like the Employee Free Choice Act … the mission is still a free workplace, but that mission has expanded well beyond card check and into every possible avenue.”

The surprising victory of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in January essentially dashed any Democratic hopes that EFCA would become law. A top legislative priority of organized labor, the bill would make it easier for workers to unionize and was a key messaging point for Republicans in 2008 Congressional elections. The House passed a version of the bill nearly four years ago, but it failed to garner enough votes in the Senate to cut off debate.

With the bill shelved, West and other members of the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace said the White House’s decision to install Craig Becker at the NLRB earlier this year has forced them to reignite their lobbying efforts — this time, at the agency’s headquarters.

The coalition includes large trade groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Beverage Association and American Trucking Association.

Since the former union lawyer arrived in January, the NLRB has continually ruffled the coalition’s feathers by apparently dicing up EFCA into smaller pieces and using regulatory tactics to try to enact them. On June 9, the business community was aghast when the NLRB issued a public notice for “industry solutions regarding the capacity, availability, methodology and interest of industry sources for procuring and implementing secure voting services both for remote and onsite elections.”

Critics said the posting amounts to a first step toward allowing unions to organize workers at offsite locations, a long-held concern of business owners. The coalition is also keeping an eye on an ongoing NLRB case that may give union organizers more access to employees on the job site — another sacred cow in the eyes of business owners.

But how do they stop it? Business community lobbyists acknowledge their options are few and complex. 

“Your recourse is much more limited and your avenue is much more restricted — there are 535 Members of Congress, so there are lots of opportunities to impact the course of a piece of legislation,” West said. “It’s a much different type of advocacy. It’s much more complicated, much less publicly marketable.”

Brian Worth, the coalition’s director and an Independent Electrical Contractors Inc. lobbyist, said this “is a little new for some of us.” He said his side is figuring out as it goes along, but that the prospects, at times, can be dizzying.

“Working agencies and writing comments is usually lawyer work — it’s the stuff you leave to regulatory attorneys,” Worth said. “It’s so far down in the weeds and so much different than lobbying the Hill.”

Organized labor is also keeping an eye on the NLRB and other executive agencies, but with a slight grin on its face. Kimberly Freeman Brown, the executive director of the union-backed coalition American Rights at Work, said her organization is pleased with the NLRB’s recent track record. 

“We’re optimistic that this board is committed to doing its mandate,” she said. “We pay attention to what’s happening at agencies like NLRB, the Department of Labor and others to make sure the rights and interests of workers are being protected as they do their jobs … where there are opportunities for public comment, we try to do that.”

In addition to slogging through tedious regulatory work, card-check foes said they are planning to lean on incoming House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to draw attention to the NLRB.

“You’re going to see a lot more cooperation between the downtown community and House chairman because oversight is one way you can get at overactive agencies,” West said.

A Republican public relations consultant agreed that Republicans’ best bet at fighting new labor rules is through the new House majority’s oversight privileges. The source also said bureaucracies such as the NLRB present real messaging challenges that are not insurmountable, but require a different approach.

“No one’s ever heard of half of these agencies. These are nameless, faceless individuals who are afforded an opportunity through rulemaking to vastly change the landscape with the business world,” the source said. “The White House thinks that they’re going to be able to reward their buddies through theses agencies and the noise level won’t get to a point where it hurts them or distracts them. My job is turn up the volume as loud as I can.”