Transportation Security Administration workers were given the right to unionize in February, and recently chose the American Federation of Government Employees to represent them. That's one of the few areas of growth for unions, whose percentage of the workforce has steadily declined in recent years.
"The percentage of workers that are in unions is a little over 11 percent, and that's declined from about 1/3 of all workers [that] used to be in unions about 30 to 40 years ago," says David Madland, director of the American Worker Project at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.
Now, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is proposing to change the rules that could speed up elections held among employees to decide whether to unionize. Critics say it’s an attempt by Obama appointees to turn those declining numbers around.
“Now the union membership's dropped off, so they say well let's just change the rules of the road because we don’t like the result," says Randel Johnson, a vice president with the Chamber of Commerce.
James Sherk, a senior policy analyst for conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, agrees that the administration is advocating for unions.
"President Obama appointed a series of union activists to the national labor relations board, and they're doing exactly what they wanted to do -- implementing the union agenda," he says.
But defenders of the proposed rule say it has a simple purpose.
“The goal of the new rule is to ensure that when workers petition for an election they actually get an election," Madland says.
Once a union gets 30 percent of workers to request an election, the NLRB orders one and most happen within 30-40 days, but Madland points out that some elections take longer.
"Both sides have the opportunity to try to game the system to have the timing at their advantage,” he says, “rather than a set time that ensures that workers get a fair choice."
Union organizers can spend weeks or even months talking to workers about unionizing without the employer even knowing about it. But critics say the NLRB is now proposing a change in rules that could force an election in as little as ten days, giving management little time to present its side to workers.
"The unions have long opposed giving employers an ability to talk about the pros and cons of unionization in the context of a union election," says Randel Johnson.
James Sherk says management needs time to communicate with employees, "and point out … the union might have promised you the sun, the moon and the stars, but in this economy we can’t possibly deliver that. But you're still going to have to pay 2 percent of salary in union dues."
He adds the process should allow time for all to make their cases. "Workers have the right to an informed choice. They ought to be able to hear from both sides, management and union making their strongest case. And then decide after some reflection whether or not they really want to join."
Meanwhile, existing unions are losing some ground. On Friday, New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie won approval from a Democratic-led state legislature for a plan that would raise the retirement age and force unionized state workers to contribute more to their health and pension plans.
"We did it in a bipartisan way,” he told the NBC's Today Show. “This is not just a Republican plan or a Democratic plan, it's a bipartisan plan where we compromise to put the people first. The taxpayers are going to be saved over $130 billion over the next 30 years. We needed to bring equity and shared sacrifice to this."
At a time when state governments and legislatures controlled by both parties are trimming union-negotiated benefits, and overall membership continues to decline, critics say Obama administration appointees are doing what they can to help unions maintain or even expand their influence.