Healthcare Business News

NLRB seeks to shorten window before union votes, and hospitals cry foul

By Joe Carlson
Posted: February 5, 2014 - 8:30 pm ET

The National Labor Relations Board is again proposing rules that critics say would stack the deck in favor of unions, especially at large health systems with complex workforces.

The 184 pages of proposed regulations (PDF), published online Thursday, would cut the lead time before a union vote from an average of about 35 days to as little 14 days. Employers typically use the time between initial petition filing and union balloting to reach out to workers and urge them not to vote to form new bargaining units.

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Health system officials fear that 14 days' notice won't give them enough time to tell workers their side of the story. Labor leaders say that's not a concern because union membership is a personal decision that workers should make for themselves.

“In our view it is not a decision that employers should participate in at all,” said David Johnson, national organizing director for National Nurses United, one of the fastest-growing labor groups in healthcare. “So the notion that they need more time to browbeat nurses is absurd.”

But advocates for management say union organizers typically spend months secretly planning for an election and networking with workers before they file the official election petition with the NLRB that reveals the effort and sets the date for voting.

“This appears to be a solution in search of a problem,” said Jones Day labor-management attorney G. Roger King, who advises the American Hospital Association on labor law. “The NLRB does a very good job at present holding elections in a relatively short time frame,” King said. “So it is surprising and disappointing that the board is moving in this direction again.”

This is the second time since 2011 that the NLRB as appointed by President Barack Obama has proposed these changes to National Labor Relations Act regulations. The first attempt drew tens of thousands of public comments and eventually ended when two federal appeals courts concluded that the administration unconstitutionally invoked its authority to make recess appointments to the board.

Today, the NLRB has a full complement of five Senate-confirmed members, including a three-member pro-union majority, King said.

Public comments that were submitted in response to the 2011 rule will be reconsidered this time around, so commenters won't have to resubmit their concerns, according to a statement from the board.

“With a Senate-confirmed five-member board, I feel it is important for the board to fully consider public comment on these proposed amendments, along with the comments we previously received in 2011,” NLRB Board Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce said. “These amendments would modernize the representation case process and fulfill the promise of the National Labor Relations Act.”

Healthcare already has a larger proportion of unionized workers than the overall economy, with 14% of workers in healthcare delivery organized compared to 7% of all private-sector employees, according to data published by labor-management firm IRI Consultants this year.

Follow Joe Carlson on Twitter: @MHJCarlson

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