WASHINGTON — The political battle over labor unions that turned ugly in Wisconsin is moving on to Congress, and Minnesota Rep. John Kline has emerged as a central figure.
Within weeks, the U.S. House will vote on its second bill this fall that would limit the power of the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that administers laws regulating private-sector unionization.
The legislation is part of a two-punch effort by House Republicans to curb NLRB power.
The current bill, sponsored by Kline, would overturn a board ruling that union elections can take place as soon as 10 days after one is requested. An earlier one, approved by the House in September, would stop the NLRB from interfering with a company’s planned relocation.
The bills fit into a months-long Republican agenda meant to curtail government regulations to provide stability to employers and encourage the hiring of new workers. Republicans say such a strategy will prove more effective at lowering unemployment than economic stimulus measures pushed by President Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“The economy doesn’t really need a jolt, as the president says,” said Kline, a Republican. “What the economy needs is certainty, it needs predictability, it needs to know that its taxes aren’t going to jump up, there’s not going to be another flood of regulations coming down on them.”
There’s some irony in the GOP argument: Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 during the height of the Great Depression, as a way to stimulate the economy by taking power away from companies and giving it to workers, University of Minnesota professor Aaron Sojourner said.
With Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House, it’s highly unlikely either NLRB bill becomes law, but their very consideration on Capitol Hill means the political fighting over labor that has marred states like Wisconsin and Ohio has moved to the federal level.
The political clash over labor has different origins depending on who you ask. Kline said the NLRB’s decisions are more controversial and higher-profile than ever before. Democrats, meanwhile, say it’s indicative of the increased influence of the tea party on Republican politics.
“Republicans view organized labor as a political enemy and they’re working to hurt their political enemy,” said Rep. Rob Andrews, the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Legislating without Congress
Republicans’ basic complaint lies in executive agencies tweaking or even overhauling policy without going through Congress. Kline contends it’s a concerted effort by labor groups and the Obama administration to enact pro-labor policies over the objections of a Republican-controlled House.
After Democrats lost control of the House in 2010, “it became apparent that Big Labor and this administration was going to look for another avenue to get their agenda in place,” Kline said. “Because they cannot get their agenda in statute, they … are moving to enact new rules and interpret rules that are clearly very favorable to Big Labor issues and big labor organizing.”
The poster child for this theory is a dispute between the NLRB and Boeing. The NLRB logged a formal complaint against the aircraft manufacturer, blocking its ability to move a mass of jobs from Washington state to the right-to-work state of South Carolina, where it had constructed a factory. The board claims Boeing made the move to punish unionized workers in Washington.
The issue has become not only a legislative one, but, given South Carolina’s early voting status, one Republican presidential candidates have used to attack Obama. In June, Michele Bachmann mentioned the Boeing dispute within the first five minutes of her first South Carolina speech.
Kline’s legislation, meanwhile, would overturn a June board ruling that union elections can take place as soon as 10 days after they are called for. Republicans say it’s an example of the board over-reaching its authority to interpret laws by changing them.
“[Kline’s legislation] constitutes a measured response to actions by a majority of NLRB members, especially over the past four months, that would substantially change our federal labor laws without an appropriate mandate from Congress,” said Charles Cohen, who served on the NLRB in the 1990s, at a committee hearing in October.
‘It would be comical if it weren’t so downright sad’
Democrats, on the other hand, have been fairly pleased with Obama’s board, which they say is correcting the mistaken decisions of the Bush administration.
“The rulings coming out of the NLRB are much more fair.” Minnesota AFL-CIO Chief of Staff Brad Lehto said.
Rep. Andrews agreed, adding that Republican insistence on limiting the NLRB’s power is not going to affect the country’s unemployment rate as dramatically as they say. He has equated the Republican focus on labor with trying to jumpstart a car in the parking lot of a shopping mall that’s burning down — they’re focusing on the wrong problem, he said.
“It’s beside the point of all our economic problems. The number one problem right is now is unemployment. Republicans have given up trying to address that,” he said. “This is so far down the list of things people are worried about, it would be comical if it weren’t so downright sad.”