Tuesday, July 11, 2006

More Proof of the Irrelevance of Union Leaders

In an opinion piece in today's The Tennessean, Tennessee AFL-CIO president Jerry Lee and national AFL-CIO president John Sweeney complain that America's workers are under assault from the Bush administration's National Labor Relations Board. Lee and Sweeney should be more concerned about their growing irrelevance. Unions once existed to provide recourse to employees who were forced to work interminable hours for virtually no pay in extremely unhealthy conditions. Their leaders are now reduced to claiming to be under attack because those who "direct ... less experienced aides" are being called "supervisors."

The growing irrelevance, as well as the increasing hysteria, of labor leaders can be seen in the ongoing declines in membership in their organizations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2005 unions represented only 12.5% of all wage and salary workers. That number is down from over 20% in 1983 and is inflated by the large number of government employees represented by unions. Only 7.8% of private sector workers are members of unions.

With those numbers in mind, it is interesting to read Lee and Sweeney's account of why they feel assaulted by recent decisions of the NLRB. They complain that in 2004 the Board ruled that graduate assistants are students more than they are employees, a position that would hardly seem to be controversial to most people. They also don't like a decision that disabled employees are not statutory employees for purposes of collective bargaining, but, as the dissenters in that case admitted, that ruling merely reaffirmed "longstanding precedent." Lee and Sweeney also complain that the Board ruled that employees working through a temp agency are not part of the same bargaining unit as an employer's own employees, but that complaint also seems spurious given the fact that the employer is, in fact, different for the temps.

In the current matter of concern, Lee and Sweeney are asking workers to march because of what the Board might do regarding the "Kentucky River" cases, but the NLRB's course has already been largely shaped by the U.S. Supreme Court decision to which they are responding. In 2001, the Supreme Court rendered a decision in the case of NLRB v. Kentucky River Community Care. Under the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947, supervisors do not have access to the protections afforded by collective bargaining. That act includes in its definition of supervisor those who have authority "responsibly to direct" employees using "independent" judgment that is not merely of a routine or clerical nature. The NLRB had somehow created a contorted view that judgment was not "independent" if it was professional or technical judgment. Thus, according to the NLRB, a head nurse "directing" other nurses was not a supervisor because that nurse was utilizing professional judgment, not independent judgment. The court ruled that this distinction did not make sense in the context of the statute. The NLRB is now evidently getting around to revisiting its position in light of that court ruling.

Thus, Lee and Sweeney are feeling assaulted by those who imagine that a head nurse who directs less experienced nurses and aides could be a supervisor and are calling for a march in protest. That is not the stuff of sweat shops. Perhaps their sense of a "harsh" economy has something to do with the growing irrelevance of their positions.

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