Businessweek Archives

The Long Knives Are Out For Bill Gould's Nlrb


News: Analysis & Commentary: LABOR

THE LONG KNIVES ARE OUT FOR BILL GOULD'S NLRB

Political savvy he may be short on. But say this for Bill Gould: He has guts.

As congressional heavies brandish their budget-cutting knives, heads of many regulatory agencies are scurrying to placate Republican constituents in the business community. Not William B. Gould IV. As chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, Gould has continued his agency's aggressive pursuit of employers who violate federal labor law.

Now, the NLRB's fate is on the line. In mid-July, employers unhappy with agency rulings against them prodded House Republicans to slash the board's $176 million annual budget by 30%. While a Senate subcommittee voted on Sept. 13 to maintain funding at current levels, agency insiders still expect the board to wind up with heavy cuts when the two bills are reconciled in October. Given a 30% reduction, says Gould, the 60-year-old agency would be forced to close half its 52 field offices and lay off almost a third ef its 2,000 staffers--atop the 900 positions eliminated since 1980.

COURT CRITIC. The GOP-led Congress might have reached this draconian juncture anyway--but Gould's no-punches-pulled approach hasn't discouraged the attack. His NLRB has issued 101 injunctions this year, triple the number of prior years. It also has taken unusual measures to curb law-breaking employers, such as a recent ruling that textile maker Fieldcrest Cannon Inc. must let agency officials read workers a cease-and-desist order against the company (table).

One action in particular triggered the attack on the NLRB's budget. In June, the board authorized an injunction against Union Pacific Corp.'s Overnite Transportation Co. trucking unit, after finding it had violated workers' rights during organizing drives by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Overnite settled the case this summer, avoiding the injunction. But Union Pacific and Overnite launched an intense lobbying campaign on the Hill. They persuaded Representative Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), a member of a House Appropriations subcommittee, to recommend the drastic budget cuts. Subcommittee head John Edward Porter (R-Ill.) opposed the action, saying: "You don't cut judicial bodies because they make decisions you don't like." Still, Overnite's lobbying carried the day.

Gould, a Stanford University labor law scholar who took ever the agency early last year, vows not to back down. "I took an oath to enforce the law," he says. "I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if I cringed every time political pressure comes along." An expert on racial discrimination in the workplace as well as sports labor law--and a longtime baseball arbitrator--Gould has been outspoken in his support for labor law reform, much of which is anathema to employers. He disagrees, for instance, with a 1938 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing permanent replacement of striking workers.

ANTIBUSINESS? Some management lawyers believe he's pushing an antibusiness agenda. To combat illegal management actions during organizing drives, for example, the NLRB has taken to singling out top executives who violate the law. A recent board complaint against Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. alleged that Chief Operating Officer David T. Vandewater "threatened" nurses and vowed not to negotiate with them even if a majority voted in a union. Columbia says Vandewater's remarks were taken out of context.

In fact, however, Gould's rulings adhere closely to precedent, says Andrew M. Kramer, a Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue lawyer who represents Bridgestone Corp. in its dispute with rubber workers. In a recent case involving an employer charged with limiting access to union organizers, says Kramer, "Gould criticized the Supreme Court ruling on the issue in his book. But when the case came before him, he said he had to follow the court and ruled for the employer."

No matter: Gould has made plenty of enemies among companies accustomed to the less vigorous enforcement that prevailed under Reagan-Bush rule. Ironically, though, the House-proposed cuts to the NLRB could end up hurting employers as well as unions. "A 30% cut is a mistake for management because the time needed to resolve cases will stretch out," says Dennis M. Devaney, a former NLRB board member whose law firm represents Caterpillar Inc. And the threat of a budget crisis won't likely cow Gould. It may just make him even tougher.

On the Warpath

Recent enforcement actions by the National Labor Relations Board

COLUMBIA/HCA HEALTHCARE Its chief operating officer was alleged to have threatened unionizing nurses; now the NLRB says the union should be recognized even though it lost the election

FIELDCREST CANNON The textile maker must pay $2 million in back wages, and a human resources vice-president must attend employee meetings at which agency officials will read aloud a cease-and-desist order

OVERNITE TRANSPORTATION The trucker agreed that more than 900 managers would face federal-court contempt charges if they violate workers' rights related to union organizing

DATA: BUSINESS WEEKBy Aaron Bernstein in New York, with bureau reports


American Apparel's Future
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW

(enter your email)
(enter up to 5 email addresses, separated by commas)

Max 250 characters

 
blog comments powered by Disqus