Bid to alter rules spurs fight over unionization

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Any time the National Labor Relations Board wants to change a rule, it's like poking a bear.

Which bear depends on which rule is being affected, but the NLRB this time has reintroduced a proposed change to allow elections to be held more quickly for workers who want to form a union.

The last time the NLRB tried to alter the rules governing union elections, the change was invalidated by a federal court that decided the board did not have the authority because it didn't have enough members to form a quorum.

Now that the board has been bulked up with appointments, the sides are lining up in support and in opposition of the union election revision.

"Under the NLRB election system, there are points at which the election can get bogged down by litigation," said Lynn Rhinehart, the general counsel for organized labor group AFL-CIO, which supports the change.

One of the ways an election can get bogged down, she said, is that while a union may propose that 56 employees should be allowed to form a union, an employer may say that six of them are ineligible because they are actually management. The court battle over those six employees can hold up the entire union drive.

The rule change would allow employees to vote with the disputed votes set aside so they could be litigated later.

"The intent behind the rule is to get rid of that litigation that happens before the vote," Ms. Rhinehart said. "We're supportive of the rules and think they would be helpful in having a smoother move toward the election process."

Under the change, employers would be asked to release more contact information for employees, including email addresses, and would allow the election petition to be filed electronically.

The last time the rule changes were proposed was in June 2011. The labor relations board at that time had just three members, and one of those members was not allowed to vote because of a conflict of interest.

Businesses call the proposal the "ambush election rule" because employers won't have as much time to fight union organizing efforts.

The time between filing a petition to hold an election and when the election would be held could be cut to as few as three weeks, instead of years that it takes now sometimes.

The rule change is opposed by corporate lawyer organizations and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has organized its own "Workforce Freedom Initiative."

In a statement about the issue, the chamber said the new rule allows unions to quietly go about organizing employees without informing employers of the effort, then spring the election on employers.

"Cutting short the election period favors unions by limiting employers' free speech rights and preventing workers from hearing both sides of the story," the chamber's statement reads. "Under the new rule, employers will then have a very limited window to discuss unionizing."

The chamber added that there is no problem with union elections, since the median time for an election to be held is 38 days and unions win 65 percent of the organizing elections.

Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699.

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