Balancing Act

GOP reform would remove partisan majorities at NLRB

Lamar Alexander
Lamar Alexander / AP
September 17, 2014

Senate Republicans are attempting to rein in a top federal labor regulator that they claim is serving partisans rather than the public.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) introduced a proposal on Tuesday that would add a sixth member to the National Labor Relations Board, a federal labor arbiter that oversees union elections and workforce disputes. Alexander told reporters on a conference call that his legislation would create labor policy that reflects consensus rather than the political wishes of the executive branch.

"The board was supposed to be an umpire … over time it’s become more of an advocate for one interest group or the other," he said.

The NLRB is a five-member board that is appointed by the president with Senate approval. At least two members of the board are chosen or recommended by the minority party, while the president selects the majority.

Alexander’s proposal would add a Republican to the board. Balancing the board would help end the oscillation between pro-labor and pro-employer decisions and instead force the board to forge consensus on sensitive labor policy, he said.

"This is not the first board that has been an advocate, but it’s been more of an advocate than previous boards and there’s a steady stream of decisions that [reinforce] that," he said.

The proposal drew praise from business groups, including the National Retail Federation. NRF senior vice president of government relations David French said that the NLRB’s approach to micro unions, subcontracting, franchising, and secret ballot elections demonstrated that it no longer had the capacity to be objective.

"For far too long, the NLRB has abandoned its original mission as an objective arbiter in employer-employee negotiations," French said in a release. "This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. This is about making our government work for both employers and employees. The NLRB Reform Act would help take politics out of the NLRB and provide retailers and other employers with the resources to review and appeal Board decisions and orders."

The NLRB has emerged as a major point of contention in Washington under the Obama administration. Republicans have accused the board of being union activists rather than unbiased arbiters.

A federal judge said that the agency was serving as a "litigation arm" of the Service Employees International Union in a recent decision. Alexander said that he crafted the legislation as a result of controversial board decisions, including the agency’s prosecution against Boeing for attempting to relocate a union-controlled factory to a right-to-work state.

"I would hope that Democrats as well as Republicans would favor a balanced board that makes timely decisions," he said.

The reform would mandate 4-2 decisions to decide cases, rather than the narrow 3-2 majorities that often settle labor disputes. Such decisions are rare, according to Alexander.

"About 97 percent of cases are unanimous," he said.

The proposal adds several incentives to encourage cross-party consensus. The legislation will cut funding by 20 percent if the board is unable to clear 90 percent of its cases within one year and also streamlines the process by allowing unions and employees to bring disputes to federal courts if the board has not reached a decision within a year. Alexander said that he is not worried about deadlock under the bipartisan board.

"Usually if you’re going to lose your funding, it gets your attention and you get things done," he said.

Published under: Lamar Alexander , NLRB