The Commercial Appeal: Tennessee Sen. Alexander is critic-in-chief of national labor board

Posted on April 19, 2014

By Michael Collins

WASHINGTON—U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander wasted no time last month decrying a federal labor board’s decision that opened the door for some college athletes to unionize.

The ruling, by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, is “an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it,” Alexander said shortly after the decision was announced.

Not usually prone to political theater, the Maryville Republican is never at a loss for condemnatory words and phrases when it comes to the labor board, which referees workplace disputes between employers and their employees.

In one of its more recent high-profile cases, the panel will convene a hearing Monday into charges of improper influence by third-party groups and politicians in the recent union vote by workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga.

Over the past year, Alexander has become one of the labor panel’s most persistent critics, regularly questioning the board’s decisions and its motives in news releases, in interviews with the press and, in some cases, in speeches delivered directly from the Senate floor.

Of the Volkswagen hearing in Chattanooga, Alexander said the proceedings are just a political show. Workers have a right to decide if they want to be represented by a union, he said. Volkswagen employees “made a decision — the (United Auto Workers) lost, and it needs to accept that,” he said.

When the labor board in February proposed rules that would shorten the time frame for holding union elections, Alexander protested that the panel was sacrificing every worker’s right to privacy and free speech.

When the board last year announced new standards that allow unions to form micro bargaining units, or “micro-unions,” Alexander said the decision would “destroy jobs, divide workplaces and make it harder and more expensive for employers to do business.”

On other occasions, Alexander has derided the five-member labor panel as a “quorum of one,” called out President Barack Obama for making “illegal” appointments to the board while the Senate was in recess, and voted against confirming two Democrats to the panel.

While his grievances against the labor board are varied, many share a common thread: Under the Obama administration, he said, the panel has become less of an umpire and more of a pro-union advocate.

“The NLRB as an advocate instead of an umpire did not start with the Obama administration,” Alexander said. But under Obama, “it has gotten much worse.”

A spokesman for the labor board declined to comment.

One of the reasons Alexander has become the panel’s critic-in-chief is that he is the top Republican on the Senate committee with jurisdiction over labor issues. If Republicans win the Senate majority in November’s elections, Alexander will likely become the committee’s chairman, which will give him the power to convene oversight hearings into the agency.

Alexander said he already is working with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on legislation to be filed later this year that would return the board to its role as referee.

While not ready to discuss specifics of the bill, “the problem we are trying to solve is that during a Democratic administration, the NLRB is perceived as an advocate for unions and during a Republican administration it is seen as an advocate for employers,” he said.

Alexander said his interest in labor-management issues is rooted in right-to-work laws.

When he was governor, Alexander said he saw firsthand how the state’s right-to-work law gave it an advantage over its competitors when he was recruiting the Japanese automaker Nissan to build an assembly plant in Tennessee.

“Every state north of us did not have a right-to-work law, and, as a result, we had a different labor environment,” he said.

Alexander is right that the labor board has tilted slightly more in favor of unions under Obama, said Gary Gerstle, an American history professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in the history of labor unions. But given how union membership has declined sharply and public sentiment about unions has shifted to the right, the board “is a weak instrument for promoting unionization,” Gerstle said.