A Major Case Could Reverse the Decline of Private-Sector Unionization

by Peter Kirsanow

A single case pending before the National Labor Relations Board has the potential to match or even exceed the significance of the events transpiring in Ohio and Wisconsin. Yet the case has flown under the radar screens of mainstream media, most employers, and the general public.

In Specialty Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, the NLRB  is considering a profound change in its 50-year-old  standards for bargaining units — a change that would permit unions to organize discrete units of employees who perform the same job in the same location. In practical terms, the change could

  • Make it much easier for unions to organize a workplace. Currently, a union must, in most cases, organize all of the employees in a workplace who share a community of interest — regardless of their job classifications. The new standard would permit a union to cherry-pick only those employees it believes support the union — thus reversing the startling decline in private-sector unionization (presently at only 6.9 percent of the workforce, down from 23 percent in the Eighties).
  • Increase the probability that a workplace will have multiple bargaining units representing different classifications of employees; e.g., one unit of, say, two set-up men, another unit of six press operators, yet another unit of three welders, a separate unit of four packers, etc. etc.
  • Increase the probability that a company’s employees will be represented by — and the company must bargain with — multiple unions, e.g., the UAW in one part of the plant, the Teamsters in another, and the SEIU in a third.
  • Increase the probability that an employer would have to manage separate work schedules, grievance procedures, wage schedules, and benefits packages for various bargaining units in a single workplace.
  • Increase the man-hours a company spends on personnel matters such as discipline, grievances, arbitration, and bargaining.
  • Reduce management’s flexibility in matters such as hiring, work assignments, transfers, promotions, layoffs, and overtime.
  • Reduce productivity and increase costs.

While most of the country focuses on the legislative battles over public-sector bargaining in two states, the ruling by the NLRB will affect exponentially more employees and employers in all states. A decision will be issued sometime after mid-March.

— Peter Kirsanow is a former member of the National Labor Relations Board.

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