By Daniel Wiessner
(Reuters) - As Republicans take control of the U.S. agency that enforces federal labor law, unions are bracing for decisions that could make it harder for them to solicit support and boost their ranks by limiting their ability to contact workers.
The Republican-led U.S. Senate voted along party lines on Wednesday to confirm John Ring, a management-side labor lawyer nominated by President Donald Trump, to a vacancy on the five-member National Labor Relations Board. His confirmation restores Republicans' 3-2 edge on the board, which had been deadlocked since December.
The NLRB, which has oversight over all private-sector employers, presides over union elections and legal disputes between workers, unions and companies.
Unions and worker advocates said they are worried that with a Republican majority, the board will issue a series of decisions and regulations that could impede their ability to reach out to workers by restricting unions’ physical access to workplaces and barring employees from using company email accounts to solicit support for unions.
The NLRB could also give companies more time to counter union campaigns and limit the ways in which unions can contact workers in order to solicit their support by revoking so-called quickie election rules issued in 2015, which it has already taken the first steps toward eliminating.
“It looks as though this board is going to be incredibly active, and make things harder” for unions, said Catherine Ruckelshaus, a lawyer with the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a union-funded employment law and policy advocacy group. NELP is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, which represents nearly 2 million U.S. workers.
An NLRB spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Restricting unions' ability to contact and organize workers could contribute to a decades-long slide in membership. Only 6.5 percent of private-sector workers are union members, down from more than one-third in the 1950s, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Many business groups and Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, say broad changes are necessary to address what they describe as radical decisions issued by the NLRB during the Obama administration. They say the Obama-era board gave unions too much access to workplaces and ignored employers' rights under federal labor law.
“The Obama board made it as easy as possible for unions to organize, regardless of how disruptive it would be to an employer’s operations,” said Glenn Spencer, the senior vice president for employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest U.S. business lobby.
With Ring's confirmation, he said, the NLRB will have a chance to take a more balanced approach.
A short-lived Republican majority at the board got off to a quick start last year, with the agency issuing several major decisions that reversed Obama-era precedent in a single week in December. That majority ended after former NLRB Chairman Philip Miscimarra's term expired that month.
Those included decisions making it more difficult for unions to organize small groups of a company's workforce and that said some common workplace rules are valid even when they restrict employees' rights to organize under federal labor law.
The board also overturned an Obama-era ruling making it easier to hold companies liable for labor law violations by contractors or franchisees that had been heavily criticized by business groups.
In February, however, the board wiped out the decision, citing a conflict of interest by one of the board members in the case. The move frustrated business groups, who now say the new Republican majority should make the issue its top priority.
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Matthew Lewis)