July 5, 2016
The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Richard F. Griffin Jr., recently launched another salvo in the board’s continuing assault on the rights of employers and employees. He aims to alter labor law by punishing employers who—following the publicly expressed wishes of their employees—withdraw recognition from unions.
Currently, employers can refuse to recognize or bargain with incumbent unions if most of their employees wish to free themselves from the union’s grasp. For example, if a majority of employees send signed petitions to an employer’s human-resources department, or voluntarily tell management that they want the union gone, the company can, and should, decline to bargain or acknowledge the legitimacy of the union.
Under the proposed new National Labor Relations Board policy, employers will be precluded from walking away from a union, and will be sanctioned by the NLRB, unless employees first vote to leave in an NLRB-conducted secret-ballot election.
Such elections tend to be costly and protracted affairs, which may be part of their appeal to the NLRB now. Unions have also long disfavored secret-ballot elections. Secret balloting reduces the chance of employees being intimidated. Such elections also subject union-organizing activities to government oversight.
Instead, with the NLRB’s blessing, unions have been trying mightily to get Congress to enact a new statute which would require “card check,” a procedure under which unions are recognized upon a public attestation by the majority of workers. Pursuant to the existing labor law, the NLRB has blessed card-check use, but its availability currently depends on employer acceptance, which is usually not forthcoming. Congress has resisted mandating card check, which could leave employees open to intimidation by fellow workers and union organizers.
The irony in this latest proposal is that it’s coming from a government agency that enthusiastically supports card check for unionization votes, but opposes it as a mechanism for deunionization votes. What Mr. Griffin is proposing is the Hotel California version of unionization: You can check into a union but you can’t check out, at least not easily.
Given its pro-union makeup, the NLRB is likely to approve this proposal. But alongside its policy flaws—making it harder for an employer and its employees to remove a union they no longer want—the proposal is also unlawful. Under settled law, executive-branch agencies must implement statutes giving full effect to congressional intent, as reflected in the statute as a whole.
As the Supreme Court explained in an early case, United States v. Boisdore’s Heirs (1850), “[i]n expounding a statute, we must not be guided by a single sentence, or member of a sentence but look to the provisions of the whole law, and to its object and policy.”
The two key congressional goals featured in the National Labor Relations Act are: (1) facilitating employers’ and employees’ acceptance of unions to avoid industrial strife causing damage to the economy and (2) allowing employees to exercise full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing. In construing the Act, the board must advance both of these goals. It cannot write either one out of existence.
If the will of a majority of workers is good enough to create union representation without an NLRB-overseen election, then it must be sufficiently fair and expedient to end it, especially since card check operates the same in both scenarios. Mr. Griffin concluded, however, that the card-check approach is sufficiently conducive to facilitating the acceptance of labor unions by employers and employees to justify its use. But he also held that, when the ejection of a union is at issue, card check cannot be used—even though it also is perfectly conducive to the employee’s right to exercise full freedom of self-organization. This approach undermines this right and entirely ignores the congressional goal of facilitating it.
Mr. Griffin’s initiative, even before it is formally blessed by the NLRB, will have an immediate adverse impact on employers and employees. Unions will read this policy announcement as an invitation to file unfair-labor-practice charges on this issue, knowing they will receive favorable consideration from the agency. Overzealous NLRB regional directors are sure to investigate charges with partiality.
This initiative is yet another example of an unconstitutional overreach by the NLRB. Fortunately, it can be successfully challenged, especially since the courts are unlikely to defer to Mr. Griffin’s implausible parsing of the National Labor Relations Act. In a series of recent Supreme Court cases, including National Assn. of Home Builders v. Defenders of Wildlife (2007) and UARG v. EPA (2014), the Supreme Court slammed agencies for rewriting “unambiguous statutory terms” to advance “bureaucratic policy goals,” calling such actions “a severe blow to the Constitution’s separation of powers.”
Clearly, the judiciary has had enough of statutory rewriting masquerading as statutory interpretation.
Mr. Rivkin is a constitutional litigator who served in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Mr. Krupin is a labor lawyer who has testified before Congress on labor-law reforms.