It's sometimes hard to remember that American workers are actually legally allowed to join unions, and that it's actually against the law for companies to intimidate workers into not organizing and for companies to refuse to negotiate with unions that represent a majority of employees. One of the real unsung accomplishments of the Clinton Presidency--"accomplishments" and "Clinton" being harder and harder to imagine together--has been the fact that the National Labor Relations Board has put some real teeth back into the Wagner Act, for the first time since the late 1970s.
Today, for example, the NLRB handed down a ruling against the Detroit News, ordering that newspaper to rehire hundreds of workers whom it let go during a bitter 19-month strike three years ago. The Detroit newspaper strike, which ended only when the striking workers agreed to come back to work unconditionally, was one of the most bitter labor clashes of the decade. Unsurprisingly, it was also one of the least-covered. Literally weeks would pass with no news from the strike appearing in any mainstream publication. By the time the workers finally cracked, the Detroit papers had already hired replacement workers, and it only took the strikers back in those cases where there were job openings.
As a result, today's NLRB ruling comes as a real vindication for the strikers. The board ruled unanimously that the Detroit News had committed a series of unfair labor practices during the strike, including: scheduling negotiations at a time when it knew the Newspaper Guild was unavailable and then telling workers that the union wasn't interested in talking and offering a merit-pay proposal and then refusing to disclose the details of the plan. More to the point, the board ruled that the newspapers have to hire back all the striking workers immediately, and give them back pay.
Were the papers to follow the board's injunction, it would come as a devastating--albeit well-deserved--blow. But the Reuters story about the decision contained that most melancholy of sentences: "The newspapers said no changes are planned while they appeal the ruling, which could take years." Justice delayed will be, in this case, justice denied, but then that's par for the course when it comes to labor relations law, in which those with deep pockets are able to tie up the courts for years before ever facing the consequences of their actions.
A bit histrionic, perhaps? In this case, not really. The point of the NLRB, after all, is to ensure that decisions about unionization are taken in conditions of relative freedom, and that labor negotiations are carried on in good faith. When companies are able to dismiss union organizers in the knowledge that doing so can often cripple an organizing drive, or commit unfair labor practices during contract talks because they believe that ultimately the workers will crack, the intent of the law is violated. I know the Wall Street Journal editorial board would like to see the National Labor Relations Act repealed. But until it is, the law is on labor's side. What we need is not just an NLRB that remains active, but also a court system that recognizes that tightening the connection between crime and punishment is necessary.