Sen. Lamar Alexander has become the newest worst expert on U.S. labor law. Instead of upholding the law as required by his oath of office, he wants to gut it while claiming to reform it.
For 80 years, the preamble of the National Labor Relations Act has stated that its purpose included "encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining... and full freedom of association." As the ranking Republican on the Health Education and Labor Committee, who aspires to being the committee chair if his dream of a Republican majority is realized in November, he ought to read the Act or at least the preamble. Instead of promoting collective bargaining, Alexander wants to change the law so that the National Labor Relations Board, which administers the Act and prosecutes offenders, is stripped of its historic mission of promoting collective bargaining.
Even worse Alexander claims that he wants to restore the board's role as umpire. The NLRB is supposed to be an advocate for working Americans to offset the enormous power of management. For 80 years, until now, it was well understood that capital and labor are not equal and that in part government needs to promote collective bargaining or it will disappear.
Ironic isn't it that collective bargaining has all but disappeared with private sector collective bargaining coverage now at 6 percent or 1900 levels, and now Alexander wants to strip away the last vestige of support for working Americans. His fix is to change the NLRB composition from five to six members and mandate that three must be from each of the two major parties. Furthermore, four members would need to agree on any decision, insuring that the guts of virtually all decisions would be destroyed.
Finally if decisions are not reached within one year, either party could move the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Alexander does not explain how that would speed decisions, since the current backlog at the U.S. Court of Appeals is one year, and in this case, he is arguing for the record to start de novo or from scratch.
The senator is also arguing that the general counsel needs to be neutral, and to achieve that he would give either party the right to ask for review any complaint issued by the general counsel in U.S. District Court. Again this adds months or more delay and by itself would clog the courts with review by corporate counsel of virtually every complaint against their clients.
But the big Alexander fabrication is his contention that he would return the board to its initial umpire status. In fact during its first 10 years, the NLRB played a significant role, as collective bargaining coverage rose from 8 to 35 percent and 10 million American workers organized. During that period the general counsel was extremely aggressive in promoting collective bargaining, by law, for the first time in our nation's history.
Every other democracy in the world, but our own, has continued to promote collective bargaining. But in the U.S., with union busting management and their $1,000 per hour corporate lawyers hiding behind free speech rights, collective bargaining in the private sector is on the verge of extinction. Sad that Republican President Gerald Ford was the last president to actually extend collective bargaining coverage, in his case, to employees of private non-profit corporations such as hospitals.
Now the Republican Party and its "labor" leadership want to return to 19th century capitalism. In his senate speech introducing his bill, Alexander said that the NLRB was a significant cause of job flight to other nations like Mexico, with the U.S. losing its advantage. Once again this is a call for laissez-faire capitalism and a race to the bottom -- cutting wages and worker protections rather than adopting national trade policy that sets minimum standards for imports that include labor rights.
But Alexander's speech should be a call to action for working Americans whether or not they have a union. Currently only the NLRB protects the rights of most working Americans who do not have a union. Many of their cases involve discrimination against workers who ask the wrong question, such as a pay raise, or seek to change conditions on the job.
If Republicans take control of the Senate this November, Alexander will be leading the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. He is telling us now what he will do as chairman. We need to put his picture and quotes about cutting back on labor rights on flyers and distribute them in all seven states with close Senate elections. Sen. Mitch McConnell's statements supporting the Alexander legislation are just as outrageous, and the minority leader is locked in a close election. Those who care about workers' rights need to heed this warning and volunteer to knock on doors, make phone calls and turn out voters on election day.
In 1936 after passage of the National Labor Relations Act, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared on workplace posters saying, "If I was a worker I would join a union."
Now we need posters saying if Republicans win control of the U.S. Senate, Alexander will be gutting the little that's left of U.S. labor law. "Which side are you on?"
Thanks to McConnell and Alexander, we all have a new reason to engage in this debate between now and Nov. 4. This should be a wake up call for all of us.
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