The National Labor Relations Board, the Depression-era agency charged with protecting a worker's right to join a union, finds itself bitterly split and facing a near-shutdown by the year's end in another example of Washington's fierce partisan divide.
Fewer than 7% of private sector workers are now represented by unions, but labor leaders had high hopes when President Obama took office. They wanted new rules to ensure speedier elections for workers who wished to join a union.
However, a new rule proposed last summer by two Obama appointees triggered sharp attacks from business groups and congressional Republicans. They said it would lead to quick "ambush" elections and deprive employers of a fair chance to argue against unionizing.
And as opposition grew on the right, the Democrats faced a ticking clock. The board has only three members, the minimum allowed under law. And one of them, Democrat Craig Becker, is serving under a recess appointment that is due to run out by the end of December.
If Becker departs and Republicans block new Obama appointees, the board will lack a quorum and be unable to adopt rules. The board's lone Republican, Brian Hayes, also has threatened to resign, leaving the remaining Democrats without the legal authority to press ahead.
The board met Wednesday and split 2 to 1 on how to proceed with the proposed rule. Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce, a Democrat, said the board should move ahead with a scaled-down proposal. Workers have a right to "a secret ballot election," he said, and employers should not be allowed to use "unnecessary delay and wasteful litigation" to prevent them from voting. Becker agreed.
Hayes, dissenting, said the proposal was unacceptable and "fundamentally flawed." He said he had decided against resigning, but said he would continue to oppose an effort to adopt a final rule.
Staff aides said it was unclear whether the board could draft and adopt a final rule before Becker was forced to leave.
The NLRB is now a regular target on the Republican campaign trail. The GOP contenders, led by Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, have derided the agency for launching an investigation of Boeing Co. for allegedly retaliating against unions in the Seattle area by transferring airline assembly jobs to a nonunion plant in South Carolina.
But that controversy may have been defused Wednesday when the Machinists Union announced it had reached a four-year deal with Boeing. The union indicated it would drop its grievance over the South Carolina plant if the agreement was ratified.