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House bills would roll back new labor rules

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The US House of Representatives will soon take up legislation that would roll back new rules issued by the National Labor Relations Board.

It's the latest in a series of bills that bears the stamp of Minnesota Republican John Kline, who chairs the House committee in charge of those bills.

Before politics, most of John Kline's career was spent as an officer in the Marine Corps. These days, he's the field commander for the House Republicans' campaign to weaken the National Labor Relations Board.

The board is tasked with overseeing private employer-employee relations.

Republican administrations have actively worked to weaken unions' clout in the workplace, while Democratic administrations have tried to strengthen unions' ability to recruit new members.

Kline acknowledges that the law permits unions but said recent NLRB actions, including a rule that speeds up union elections and a decision to allow so-called micro-unions in some workplaces, are contributing to the sluggish economy.

"They're moving rules and interpretations at an astonishing pace that, I think, adds to the concern and the uncertainty and the lack of confidence in the private sector," Kline said.

Rob Andrews, a longtime New Jersey Democrat who sits on Kline's committee and is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee for labor issues, is skeptical that the weak economy can be credited to the NLRB or union influence — less than 7 percent of the U.S. workforce belongs to a private sector union.

In 21 years of service on the committee, Andrews said he's never seen the extent of animosity directed at the NLRB as that by Republicans, even when the GOP controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress.

"This time though they really have targeted the National Labor Relations Board as an agency they want to stymie and bring down,  Andrews said. "And I do think it's unprecedented."

One example, he said, is the bill passed by the House in September that would reverse a decision by the NLRB's general counsel to look into whether Boeing's decision to open a new non-union airplane factory in South Carolina constituted retaliation against Boeing's unionized workers in Washington state.

Republicans, including Kline, seized on that action as evidence that the NLRB and the Obama administration have strong anti-employer bias.

Labor law professor Michael Harper at Boston University said that bill — which the Democratic-controlled Senate won't take up — is equivalent to Congress butting into a grand jury investigation.

"It is inappropriate for Congress to intervene into particular cases while they are ongoing," Harper said.

This latest GOP bill would reverse the recent NLRB ruling to speed up the timeline for union elections. That new rule is another case of the NLRB "overreaching" its mandate, Kline said.

"By having a union election in as few as 10 days, there is no way that employees have a chance to understand all sides of the issue and make an informed decision," Kline said. "And there's no real opportunity for the employers to communicate to their employees."

The bill is all but certain to pass the Republican-controlled House. But Andrews points to last week's victory of an Ohio ballot measure that overturned anti-union laws recently passed by the state's Republican governor and legislature.

On this issue, the GOP is playing with electoral fire, Andrews said.

"It's ironic the Republican war on collective bargaining may be doing more to motivate pro-union forces in this country than the Democratic majority did when we were trying to pass laws that that group wanted," Andrews said.

Kline is unfazed by the opposition from unions and Democrats to his bills.

Even though Kline recognizes that none of his proposals will become law, he said they send an important message to voters about how a fully-Republican Congress and White House would act if next year's elections go their way.

"We think it's important to keep the pressure up," Kline said.

That's exactly what he plans to keep doing until Election Day 2012.