Democrats lash Bush's "hostile" labor board

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Democrats on Thursday criticized the U.S. government’s labor relations board under the Bush administration as hostile to workers’ rights, while Republicans complained of political grandstanding.

Amid controversy over a wave of recent decisions by the National Labor Relations Board, a committee questioned NLRB Chairman Robert Battista and member Wilma Liebman at a joint hearing of Senate and House of Representatives panels.

The NLRB “is supposed to protect the voice of American workers, but the board is no longer fulfilling that responsibility,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and ally of the labor movement.

California Democratic Rep. George Miller said, “Workers’ rights have been under near-constant assault in the years since the start of the Bush administration.”

Battista, whose five-year term as chairman expires in three days, defended the NLRB’s record. He said figures showed the board was more productive and efficient under his leadership.

“The agency is successfully carrying out its statutory mission,” Battista said, accusing the board’s critics of “special-interest attacks designed to gain support for their position in the coming election cycle.”

California Republican Rep. Howard McKeon said Democrats convened the joint hearing “to appease the labor union special interests that helped put them in office by attacking decisions

of the NLRB that they do not view as sufficiently pro-union.”

In a country where strikes are rare, union membership is in decline, and Wall Street no longer even bothers to factor “labor risk” into stock valuations, the labor movement is trying to reassert itself and the Democratic Party is helping.

Unions played a role last year in Democrats’ regaining control of Congress and are working for similar 2008 results by backing Democrats in the race for the White House.

In return, unions are now getting a forum on Capitol Hill to air long-standing grievances accusing the Bush administration of pursuing years of pro-business and anti-union policies. The NLRB is a particular target of union ire.

Illinois Democratic Rep. Phil Hare said he did not see the hearing as a political stunt, but as an important inquiry.

“I don’t think I have ever seen a labor board so tilted against working people,” Hare said at the hearing.

Set up during the Great Depression amid severe labor strife, the NLRB’s original legal mandate was to help reduce strikes and other economic disruptions by “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining.”

Since then, the board has see-sawed with every change in administration, leaning more pro-union during some presidencies and less in others, said Liebman, a frequent dissenter in recent NLRB decisions and its longest-serving current member.

“But something different is going -- more ‘sea change’ than ‘see-saw.’ The current board, it seems to me, is divorced from (1935’s) National Labor Relations Act, its values, and its goals. Its decisions have demonstrated as much,” she said.

In September, the board issued a ruling in a case involving car and truck parts maker Dana Corp. Liebman said the decision will make it more difficult for workers to form and keep a union based on their signing of authorization cards, rather than voting in an NLRB-supervised election.

Other September decisions eroded the NLRB’s enforcement powers by cutting help available to victims of unfair labor practices, she said.

Editing by Chris Wilson