WASHINGTON -- Labor regulators are proposing sweeping new rules that would dramatically speed up the time frame for union elections, a move that could make it easier for struggling unions to organize new members, and cut the time businesses have to mount anti-union campaigns.
The National Labor Relations Board announced the new rules on Tuesday, saying the current rules build in unnecessary delays and encourage wasteful litigation.
The proposal is expected to irritate Republicans and business groups who have complained about the board's pro-labor actions.
Most labor elections currently take place within 45-60 days after a union gathers enough signatures to file a petition, a time many companies use to discourage workers from unionizing. The new plan could cut that time by days or even weeks -- depending on the case -- by simplifying procedures, deferring litigation and setting shorter deadlines for hearings and filings.
But it does not impose a specific deadline for elections, as many labor leaders had hoped. Canada, for example, requires such elections to take place in as little as 5 to 10 days.
Board chairwoman Wilma Liebman said the plan would lead to rules that are simpler and clearer, removing unnecessary delays and avoiding wasteful litigation.
"Resolving representation questions quickly, fairly, and accurately has been an overriding goal of American labor law for more than 75 years," she said.
Passage would be a victory for labor unions that have long complained about employers using procedural delays and litigation to hold up elections and intimidate workers. Some employers hire so-called "union busting" consulting firms to produce videotapes, draft talking points or create brochures to deter unionizing.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka praised the plan, calling it "a common sense approach to clean up an outdated system."
"Our current system has become a broken, bureaucratic maze that stalls and stymies workers' choices," Trumka said. "The proposed rule does not address many of the fundamental problems with our labor laws, but it will help bring critically needed fairness and balance to this part of the process."
The proposal was approved by the board's majority, led 3-1 by Democrats. The board's lone Republican, Brian Hayes, issued a vigorous dissent, saying the proposal would result in the type of "quickie elections" union leaders have long sought. Hayes claimed elections could be held in as little as 10 to 21 days from the filing of a petition, giving employers less of a chance to make their case.
"Make no mistake, the principal purpose for this radical manipulation of our election process is to minimize or, rather, to effectively eviscerate an employer's legitimate opportunity to express its views about collective bargaining," Hayes wrote.
The board will take 75 days to review comments and replies before making a decision on whether the rule should become final.
Union membership has steadily declined from about 20 percent in the 1980s to just to 11.9 percent of all workers, and just 6.9 percent of the private sector. Many members blame increasingly aggressive anti-union tactics, but they have tried without success to beef up federal penalties for what they say are growing instances of intimidation and threats against workers.
Labor leaders made a major push in 2009 for Congress to pass so-called "card check" legislation that would have increased penalties for such violations and made it easier for unions to organize workers by signing cards instead of holding secret-ballot elections. But the measure failed to garner a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Since then, labor has pinned its hopes for a revival on action at the NLRB, the Labor Department and other sympathetic administrative agencies.
The board has not disappointed. It has cracked down on businesses that fire employees during union organizing drives and proposed rules that would require all business to display posters explaining union rights. In perhaps the most prominent case, the NLRB's acting general counsel filed a controversial lawsuit earlier this year that accused Boeing Co. of retaliating against union workers in Washington state by placing a new assembly line for the Dreamliner 787 in South Carolina, a right-to-work state.
The proposed rule could be another step in helping unions halt the membership decline and organize more workers.
-- Allow electronic filing of petitions and other documents to speed up processing.
-- Set pre-election hearings to begin 7 days after a petition is filed.
-- Defer litigation of eligibility issues involving less than 20 percent of the bargaining unit until after the election.
-- Eliminate pre-election appeals of rulings by an NLRB regional director.
-- Reduce from 7 to 2 days the time for an employer to provide an electronic list of eligible voters.