In early October, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a ruling that threatens to take away the right to unionize from over 8 million workers by massively broadening the definition of a supervisor.

The ruling came in a case involving Oakwood Heritage Hospital in Taylor, Michigan, where the United Auto Workers had been attempting to organize nurses. The new definition of supervisor includes all workers who oversee other employees and can be held accountable for those employees’ performance – even if supervisory functions account for as little as 10-15% of their work time! Supervisors are exempted from legal protections guaranteeing the right to join a union.

This ruling could take the right to join a union away from most Registered Nurses (RNs), and it could also affect large numbers of workers in the restaurant and retail industries where workers are often delegated minor supervisory duties such as shift assignments.

All this comes at a time when unions are experiencing a serious decline in membership caused by outsourcing and the continued attacks on the right to organize, of which this is just the latest example.

Under the neo-liberal offensive of big business, the NLRB has become increasingly anti-worker during both Republican and Democratic administrations. Despite formal NLRB protections for the right to organize, companies are allowed to illegally fire tens of thousands of workers each year for trying to organize unions.

The Bush-appointed board has only further accelerated this trend, declaring that graduate teaching assistants cannot form unions and that workers employed by temp agencies cannot organize with permanent employees in the same workplace.

Organize Outside the NLRB
Recent events have made it clear we can’t rely on the NLRB as a tool to help us organize workers and protect our rights. Unionizing a workplace through NLRB elections is a long process that the bosses intentionally draw out to give themselves ample time to spread their anti-union propaganda and intimidate workers into voting against the union. One study found that unionization rates drop 0.29% for each day of delay.

Long before the NLRB ever existed to “protect their rights,” workers won the right to form unions through militant struggles in the workplace and in the streets. The NLRB was formed in 1935 after a period of radicalization and massive workers’ struggles had forced the major companies to concede to workers’ demands for unions. It was created by the big business Democratic Party to bring union struggles off the streets and into a legal framework, to keep the labor movement working through “safe” and more controllable channels.

Recently, some unions like UNITE-HERE have started organizing outside of the NLRB, using what is known as the card check procedure. Rather than holding drawn-out NLRB elections, the union demands that the company recognize the union when a sizeable majority of the employees in a given workplace sign cards authorizing union representation.

This cuts out all the delays, puts power in the hands of workers, and reduces employer intimidation, making the unionization process more democratic and faster. It also cuts out the corporate-controlled government from interfering in the process.

However, even many successful union drives are still unable to secure a first contract with their employers. Unions must be ready to force employers to bargain by bringing into play their main power – the threat to shut down the company by the workers withdrawing their labor.

To rebuild the union movement, unions are going to have to be willing to work outside the NLRB, as well as challenge the NLRB’s rulings and break big business’s laws. The era of strong union growth and workplace struggles that won gains for workers in the 1930s succeeded because of militant tactics like sit-ins, solidarity strikes, and mass picketing – not by relying on some body of the big-business-run government. These are the kinds of tactics unions will need to rediscover if they want to win strikes and rebuild the labor movement.