by Ellen Dannin. She is the author of Taking Back the Workers’ Law - How to Fight the Assault on Labor Rights (Cornell University Press) and the Fannie Weiss Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law at Penn State Dickinson School of Law.
Through the decades, many proposals have been made to replace, repeal, or amend the National Labor Relations Act. Most have foundered for good reason. Amending the NLRA requires applying the precautionary principle – first, do no harm.
In the case of the NLRA, proposed amendments should be justified by showing that a change will promote the NLRA’s purposes and policies. The ultimate policy is to restore equality of bargaining power between employers and employees by “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.” The basic goal was to balance the power corporation and partnership law gave employers to become collective with a law that gave employees the right to take collective action to improve working conditions.
The standard to measure the value of proposals to change the NLRA is not whether the change would increase the number of union members – although that certainly matters. It is whether the change would increase employee bargaining power. The purpose of increasing employee bargaining power was to improve the quality of work, and, ultimately, promote a fairer, more prosperous, more democratic society.
Congress was impelled to pass the NLRA because the increase in power employers had, as a result of corporation and partnership laws, so skewed power toward employers that wages and working conditions had spiraled down and led to economic collapse.
We have seen similar dynamics during the Great Recession with attacks on employee working conditions, and especially attacks on public sector employee wages and benefits – as well as through privatization. The ferocity of those attacks in recent years and the low percentage of union members raise concerns that the spiraling down of working conditions will lead to economic disaster. Desperate times seem to call for desperate measures.
However, these days, most people have little to no first-hand knowledge of how the National Labor Relations Board operates or of the purpose of the law. Here, then, is a brief NLRA / NLRB primer.