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This is a crosspost from AFL-CIO Now.

A few nights ago, a group of New Jersey nurses in contract negotiations with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital held a candlelight vigil. The nurses are seeking contract language that will protect them from an expected anti-worker decision by the Bush-packed National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB is set to rule on three cases collectively known as "Kentucky River"--and the ruling literally could take away bargaining rights from hundreds of thousands of employees.

And not just nurses. If the NLRB agrees to alter the definition of "supervisor," building trades workers, newspaper and television employees, port workers and many others could be prohibited from forming unions.

Meanwhile, the NLRB has refused to hear oral arguments on the cases--and has heard no oral arguments, a fundamental part of any due process, since the Bush administration took office. In fact, the NLRB denied union requests to heard oral arguments in these cases.

(We urge you to contact your members of Congress to tell Bush's labor board to reverse its decision and allow oral arugments in the Kentucky River cases.)

During the week of July 10, hundreds of thousands of union members will take to the streets in a week of action to demand that their employers not fire them for their union membership. Already, some 7,000 nurses and other health care workers at eight New Jersey hospitals threatened to strike to protect nurses' right to speak out for their patients through their union.

How did we as a nation come to the point where those in power threaten the rights of hundreds of thousands of workers to exercise the freedom to form unions--one of the pillars of the Bill of Rights?

Although nurses in 2006 New Jersey may seem to have little in common with auto foremen in the 1940s, the attack the hospital nurses face today is part of a relentless, decades-long assault by corporate-backed members of Congress on the bargaining rights of workers--from auto foremen to nurses.

From the time the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in the 1930s, Big Business interests have sought to deny America's workers their fundamental freedom to form unions. One strategy has been to limit the number of workers who qualify for union membership and federal labor law protection. Among those targeted are workers whom employers seek to classify as "supervisors."

In 1941, foremen at Ford's Rouge plant began forming a union. Although foremen's unions had existed for decades in the printing, building trades and other industries, the independent Foremen's Association of America represented a clear challenge to industrial management's authority. Between 1920 and 1940, the ratio of foremen to workers remained static but increased by 70 percent in the 1940s.

Not only were foremen a large and burgeoning segment of one of the nation's most powerful and fastest-growing workforces, their successes in organizing their peers quickly gaining momentum: By the early post-war years, an estimated 100,000 foremen had joined together in some form of bargaining unit.

The idea of foremen ("supervisors" in today's parlance) forming unions scared corporate interests.

No, scratch that. It didn't scare them.

It terrified them.

By 1947, corporate-backed Republicans in the House and Senate, who had spent years trying to legislatively hamstring the NLRA, succeeded in passing the Taft-Hartley Act. With its passage, Taft-Hartley basically destroyed the main goal of the NLRA: to give workers a fair chance to decide whether to form unions.

Taft-Hartley includes a dirty laundry list of rules, but among the most significant--although the least noted at the time of the law's passage--is its ban on supervisors forming unions.

So, the Ford foremen's union was abolished. And the growing number of white-collar, "middle management" professionals who proliferated throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were powerless to join together and bargain collectively with their bosses. Today, such workers are called "at-will" employees, a friendly sounding euphemism that in fact means they can be fired for anything--as long as it doesn't violate federal discrimination or other such laws.

Under Taft-Hartley, a supervisor is defined as

...any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward or discipline other employees, or responsibility to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend such action, if in connection with the foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment.

But this definition wasn't enough for Big Business. In the decades following Taft-Hartley passage, corporations have continued to expand Taft-Hartley's meaning of "supervisor."

Current U.S. labor law makes it easy for employers to delay recognizing unions. If a group of workers votes to join a union, union-hating employers can merely assert the workers perform supervisory functions and are not eligible to be part of a bargaining unit. In doing so, employers accomplish two things:

They delay, often by years, the time in which they recognize and must bargain with the union.

If successful in their challenge, they further limit the number of America's workers who can join unions.

The legal process is long and tedious, but by working through the federal courts and the National Labor Relations Board, which was set up by the NLRA to administer the law, corporations have successfully chipped away at the scope of "supervisor."

With the extension of the NLRA to nonprofit hospitals, the question of what duties a worker must perform to be considered a "supervisor" moved to the health care field, now among the nation's fastest-growing job sectors. Two key cases on the question of whether nurses are supervisors wound their way through years of NLRB and federal court rulings to the Supreme Court. And in all three cases, the high court agreed with employers and further limited the ability of nurses to form unions.

In the most recent Supreme Court case, NLRB v. Kentucky River Community Care, the justices in 2001 ruled, 5-4, that six RNs at the Caney Creek Developmental Complex in Pippa Passes, Ky., were supervisors. The ruling stood on the issue of "independent judgment." In his dissent, Justice Stevens argued the statutory terms "independent judgment" and "responsibility to direct" are ambiguous. Stevens further warned:

...if the term "supervisor" is construed too broadly, without regard for the statutory context, then Congress's inclusion of professionals within the Act's protections is effectively nullified.

Justice Stevens is right that construing the term "supervisor" broadly will eliminate professional employees from NLRA protections. This is exactly what many fear the Bush labor board will do.

Although it would be nice to buy in to the fiction that regulatory bodies are above politics, they aren't. As James Gross has shown in his volumes on the history of the NLRB, the board rules in the interests of its members. And if those members are corporate-backed Republicans, they almost inevitably will rule in the interests of Big Business.

The connection between political action and organizing could never be more clear.

(The background on auto foremen stems from historian Nelson Lichtenstein's great study, "The Man in the Middle: A Social History of Automobile Industry Foremen," On the Line: Essays in the History of Auto Work, eds. Lichtenstein and Stephen Meyer.)

Originally posted to Tula Connell on Thu Jun 29, 2006 at 06:34 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Highly recommended (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    thsisnotanexit, smintheus, ksh01

    And this is a major danger to the workplace rights of millions of people.  Whether they are union members or not since the suppposed "threat" of a union keeps a heck of a lot of employers in line to one degree or another.  

    If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place - FDR

    by PaulVA on Thu Jun 29, 2006 at 06:44:28 AM PDT

  •  Jeez (0+ / 0-)

    Sometimes this government reminds me of a smart toddler on steroids looking for any way to attack a right or obligation in order to manipulate a result that gives them profit.

    I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but the end result of this across the board attack is a wearing down of those who would protest and protect their rights. Ultimately, even the most permissive and easy going parent puts their foot down, unfortunately this is a multi-headed hydra toddler with many and diverse victims.  It strikes me that the agencies/branches created to protect us from such overstepping (the Congress, the Supreme Court, the NLRB) are so deep in the govt's pocket, we're on our own.

    I personally think there is much spine left in the democratic party, I'm just not impressed that there is any coordination. We're not so much in need of a leader  per se, just in need of a leader with organized and informed resistance propping them up.

    How's that for a parent-of-toddlers-pre-coffee rant?

    Excellent diary. Thanks.

    Blogatha! The political, the personal. Not necessarily in that order.

    by ksh01 on Thu Jun 29, 2006 at 07:28:22 AM PDT

  •  Kentucky River (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    One of the biggest problems all of us face in this case is that Kentucky River is a lousy case for our side.  As you mentioned, Tula, the case involves an election at a nursing home -- and, to be perfectly frank, RNs at nursing homes really are supervisors, by any of the normal standards set forth in the Act (even down to the ratio of supervisors to supervisees that the Board pretends to look at).  I used to work for a nurses' union, and when Kentucky River came down we were all pretty pissed, not only at the decision, but at the Carpenters -- yes, the nursing home employees were organizing with the Carpenters, go figure -- for being stupid enough to make this a test case.

    I'm glad that the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, whom you mentioned in passing, have won recognition for charge nurses in nearly all of their contracts in New Jersey, with one hospital still looking for a Final Battle with their RNs, and we should all keep up these fights...but we're paying the price now for the moribund, largely visionless, anti-Lefitst labor movement of the last 40 of 50 years.  Capital knows we're vulnerable and they're out for blood.  Frankly, I'm very pessimistic, and fear that the battle is already lost.

    "Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!" -- Situationist graffito, 1968

    by Pesto on Thu Jun 29, 2006 at 07:52:52 AM PDT

  •  excellent diary Tula, as always (0+ / 0-)

    Are there any presumptive presidential candidates who've declared that they would like to repeal Taft-Hartley?

  •  Tula (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wage Warrior II

    I'm so sorry I didn't see your diary until July 11 and there's no more recommend button.  
    THANK YOU.   I worked in health care for 20 + years as a tech and they were always trying to pull some shit on nurses, but this---!  

    War is not an adventure. It is a disease. It is like typhus. - Antoine De Saint-Exupery

    by Margot on Tue Jul 11, 2006 at 05:23:09 AM PDT

  •  IF YOU'RE IN DC -- (0+ / 0-)

    Come out tomorrow, 7/13, and join the protest. We're grouping up 11:30 to noon in Franklin Square, then moving over to the NLRB:

    Thursday, 7/13: Push Back! Don't Let Them Roll Back Worker's
    12P, NLRB HQ, 14th & L
    Support UMWA President Cecil Roberts, Metro Council President
    Jos Williams, AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff and
    others as they commit civil disobedience to protest the NLRB's
    move to roll back your freedom to join or form a union.

    actions starting today, thousands of nurses, construction
    workers, miners and other workers will march to regional Labor
    Board offices and worksites to demand that they not be denied
    their worker rights and union protections. In Washington, more
    than 500 are expected to converge on NLRB headquarters in
    downtown DC at noon on Thursday, when civil disobedience will be
    committed by UMWA President Cecil Roberts, Metro Washington
    Council President Jos Williams, AFL-CIO Organizing Director
    Stewart Acuff, DCNA Nurse Sandra Falwell, Jobs with Justice
    Executive Director Fred Azcarate, Rev. Ron Stief (Director of
    the DC Office of United Church of Christ  Justice and Witness
    Ministries) and UMWA Organizing Director James Gibbs.

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