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NLRB Shedding Ultra-Conservative Slant

President Reagan is still a comfort and joy to the nation’s far right on most issues, both foreign and domestic, but ultra-conservatives will get little satisfaction from the major changes that he has made in the National Labor Relations Board, which administers the nation’s labor laws. On the other hand, liberals and unionists will get mostly cold comfort from Reagan’s remaking of the NLRB.

This seeming paradox is easily explained: After several years of domination by NLRB members who were not just pro-management but almost openly anti-union and anti-worker, the board majority is now made up of conservative, management-oriented members who are not, however, doctrinaire ideologues.

It is still something of a stacked deck against unions. The NLRB general counsel, Rosemary Collyer, and three of the five board members were attorneys for management in labor disputes before coming to the board. One member, James M. Stephens, was labor counsel for conservative Utah Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch’s Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources.

The fifth board member, Wilfred W. (Bud) Johansen, is a career employee of the NLRB, but he has usually sided with management in recent cases and has frequently taken a more conservative position than all but one of the other members. This is surprising because Johansen won respect from union attorneys when he headed the NLRB regional office here for several years and so was expected to be a moderate voice on the board when he was appointed in May, 1985.

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The new majority means that most, though not all, of the board’s crucial pro-management decisions of the past will generally remain intact. Nevertheless, the board majority, and Collyer, are professionals who are giving unions less-biased hearings, and labor can, therefore, expect to win a few more victories.

It is customary for Republican presidents to appoint board members who reflect the GOP viewpoint, and for Democrats to do the same. The new majority is now in the more traditional Republican mode and not that of the extreme right. The situation is comparable to one in the Department of Labor, which is headed by a moderate Republican, William E. Brock III. He isn’t challenging the basically conservative labor policies of the Reagan Administration, but Brock is not anti-union, either, and he gets along with organized labor.

The board’s present “moderate-conservative” orientation will be emphasized again soon if, as expected, Reagan appoints Mary Cracraft, an experienced Kansas City, Mo., attorney, to succeed the independent-minded Patricia Diaz Dennis, who has been given a post on the Federal Communications Commission. Her new position is regarded as a promotion, but undoubtedly she is pleased to be leaving the NLRB because of her bitter, often personal quarrels with NLRB Chairman Donald L. Dotson.

The staunchly conservative Dotson is now isolated. He apparently has few friends left either at the White House or on the NLRB itself.

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Dotson was reportedly quite unhappy with Collyer’s June 2 decision dismissing charges by the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund against the United Auto Workers and General Motors. The Virginia-based organization had accused the UAW and GM of giving illegal preference for jobs to UAW members at the planned Saturn auto plant in Spring Hill, Tenn.

Collyer said there was nothing illegal about the UAW helping GM design a system to help the company compete with foreign imports and getting in return a GM pledge to hire laid-off UAW members from other plants to work at Saturn. The ruling was obviously not anti-union.

Despite Collyer’s Saturn ruling and a few other recent moderate decisions by the board itself, the agency isn’t now marching in a liberal direction.

As Mark de Bernardo, labor attorney for the National Chamber of Commerce, correctly observed: “It is clear there is still a working majority upholding the Reagan philosophy. The pro-labor bias of previous boards is just history at this point.” But at least Dotson’s hard-line attitude no longer reflects the NLRB majority.

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Dotson antagonized some key figures at the White House last year when he complained about ignorance of labor matters within the Administration. His criticism was echoed by his chief legal counsel, Charles M. Williamson, who complained that “there is a small, naive and ambitious group inside the Administration who fail to grasp that they are being used by the liberal press, institutional labor and some academics for anti-Administration purposes.”

Then, more recently, Dotson insulted other board members and staffers when he clearly indicated that he didn’t think much of their talents in labor-management relations. He wrote a letter contending that a congressman’s idea for a super-agency to deal with federal government labor relations was bad because it is based on a “myth.” It is a myth, he said, that “agencies like the NLRB have special expertise to deal with the matters coming before them.”

As an institution, Dotson continued, the NLRB has demonstrated “only a superficial and spotty expertise in the ways of the industrial world” and “has been willing to distort some of the most fundamental legal principles to achieve results.”

The recently appointed board member, Marshall B. Babson, said later that the Dotson letter may be a case of “the chairman shooting himself in the foot.” Babson then proceeded to defend the expertise of the agency, which employs more than a thousand attorneys who, as one of them said, “live and breathe labor law every day.”

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Such gaffes may have helped convince Reagan that a less hard-line board majority makes sense, even if Dotson does represent his own view of how to “handle unions.”

But it is also possible that the changes were made at the recommendation of some politically astute aides, who argued that a less militantly right-wing board would make a somewhat smaller political target for the verbal barbs thrown by unions with considerable effect at the old board.

Schlossberg Study

Both the thinking and the actions of Stephen I. Schlossberg, deputy undersecretary of labor, probably infuriate the political right wing of the Republican Party and business with regularity. And his new endeavor can only increase their bitterness toward him.

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Ultra-conservatives are not very happy about the slightly more moderate direction that the NLRB is taking these days, nor about the attitude of Secretary of Labor Brock toward unions--he doesn’t hate them, and, in fact, he gets along with union leaders fairly well.

But, to the far rightists, Schlossberg is in a class by himself. A former attorney for the UAW and an outspokenly liberal Democrat, he not only has a good relationship with his boss, Brock, but he is generally given a free hand to pursue his own ideas, which almost always run counter to those of the far right.

For instance, on Monday he announced the launching of a comprehensive study to see whether federal labor laws and procedures impede cooperation between labor and management. Companies that negotiate union contracts giving workers and their unions a greater-than-ever voice in managing the firms run into trouble at times with laws that seem to limit such cooperation.

Schlossberg said the new study, which he will direct, is designed to increase awareness of labor-management cooperation, identify impediments to such cooperation and seek a consensus on ways to eliminate them.

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Companies can and do have worker participation programs whether or not their workers are represented by a union. But, since Schlossberg is a union man of long standing, he is almost sure to stress the need for cooperation in unionized companies and to de-emphasize the prospects for such cooperation in non-union firms.

With President Reagan still in the White House to stop any major Administration assistance to unions, the ultra-conservative, anti-union forces don’t really have to worry--yet. But projects such as the one just starting under Schlossberg could create serious trouble for them during a different Administration. So maybe they should start worrying at least a little.


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