Businesses, organizers at odds over plan to remake union voting rules

New federal rules set to take effect next month could make union organizing easier, but business groups suing to block the regulations warn they'll give organized labor the upper hand.

Proposals by the National Labor Relations Board would delay most employer challenges to a union election petition until after workers have actually voted on joining a union. Businesses would have only seven days to file paperwork with the NLRB outlining any objections to a worker unionization request and would have to submit a detailed list of employees eligible to vote in a union election.

The NLRB says its plans are meant to streamline the process across all its regional offices. But while labor organizers back the rule changes, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several other business organizations have filed federal lawsuits seeking to block the regulations before they take effect April 14.

The planned changes are the most significant in decades and will speed the work to schedule a vote when someone seeks union representation, said Marlin Osthus, regional director for the NLRB's Upper Midwest operations.

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They'll also make it harder for employers to file "frivolous" claims, said Eric Salminen, health care organizer with the Service Employees International Union.

"It's very common for management to try to tie the whole process up and file a lot of different objections even if none of them go through, which can hold off an election by months, sometimes years," said Salminen, who's focusing his efforts on unionizing workers in hospitals and nursing homes following a major victory last summer when the SEIU won the right to represent 27,000 home health workers across the state.

With union membership on the decline for decades, labor groups like the expedited process. But Jim Plunkett with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it allows unions to hold what he calls "ambush elections."

Today, the NLRB says unionization votes are held a median 38 days after workers file a petition. Plunkett, the business lobbying group's director of labor policy, says with the new rules, those votes could come in less than two weeks, a time frame too short for employers to respond and make their case to workers.

"The rule here is really a solution in search of a problem and would dramatically tilt the playing field in what we think should be a neutral playing field," Plunkett said. "It would tilt it dramatically in favor of union organizers."

Plunkett says small employers without human resources departments and labor lawyers would be at a particular disadvantage.

University of Minnesota labor relations expert John Remington says expedited elections might boost unions' chances of winning a vote, but he doesn't expect a surge of organizing. "This is not a silver bullet for the survival of the labor movement," he said.

The new union election regulations are being driven by the Democratic majority on the National Labor Relations Board, Remington said, adding that things could change easily if more Republicans are appointed.

"I wouldn't be surprised if a Republican administration appointed a board majority that would attempt to overturn a lot of these things very dramatically," he said.