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Labor Board Flexes Muscle, To Chagrin Of Business

WASHINGTON (AP) - The agency that enforces the nation's labor laws has emerged as a key player in the clash between business and organized labor over union rights.

The National Labor Relations Board has been flexing its muscle in recent months by cracking down on businesses that fire employees during union organizing drives and reconsidering some business-friendly decisions made during the George W. Bush administration.

It recently proposed a new rule that would require every private employer to display posters explaining union rights. And last month, it threatened to sue four states over laws that guarantee the right to a secret ballot in union elections.

The moves are a rare bright spot for a labor movement that has lost more than 1.3 million members over the last two years and failed to win federal legislation that would make it easier to organize new members.

But business groups are unnerved, and say the newly energized board is going too far to help labor unions. The board has also provoked GOP lawmakers, who are expected to question the board's activities at a congressional hearing on Friday.

Some Republicans have suggested the NLRB and other independent agencies could see their budgets cut.

"We're not taking anything off the table as far as how aggressive we're going to be in reducing spending and bringing some fiscal responsibility back to government, and the NLRB is not exempt from that," said Brian Newell, spokesman for Minnesota Rep. John Kline, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

But some say the board may go even further in the coming months, possibly speeding up the time frame for union elections to as little as 10 days after organizers at a work site collect enough signatures.

That would be a huge boost for unions and a blow to companies like retail giant Wal-Mart and laundry company Cintas Corp., which have successfully fought off unions for years and now count on having at least a month or two to mount union resistance campaigns.

Board chairwoman Wilma Liebman says the Republican critics are launching misguided effort to portray the board as radical. She sees an agency that is "reinvigorated" and finally back to enforcing labor laws after years of malaise.

"There are those people out there who would prefer that the board be dead or dying," she told The Associated Press. "Now that it's alive and sitting up in the hospital bed, they are upset about that. Some are even angry because they'd just as soon it stay dormant."

The five-member board, which also referees labor-management disputes and oversees union elections, has three Democrats and one Republican - with another GOP seat vacant. The balance shifts depending on which party controls the White House.

Last March, Obama had to bypass the Senate to appoint lawyers Craig Becker and Mark Pearce to the board. Republicans had blocked Becker's nomination for months, claiming the former general counsel to the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union would bring a radical, pro-union agenda to the job. Now with its first Democratic majority in nearly a decade, the agency has been making waves.

Becker's term will expire at the end of this year, but Obama last month renominated Becker to serve until 2014. Within days, all 47 Senate Republicans demanded he withdraw it. The lawmakers claim Becker has politicized the board to favor unions at the expense of business.

Pressure is also coming from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which fears the board's decisions will allow unions to gain a foothold in businesses where they have had trouble in the past.

"They seem to be shifting to a mindset that says their mission is to expand union membership regardless of what the law might be," said Glenn Spencer, an executive director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But AFL-CIO general counsel Lynn Rhinehart said the board is being unfairly targeted for simply doing its job and enforcing the law.

"It's just really not that remarkable what is going on over at the board," Rhinehart said. "This is an agency that was set up to protect workers' rights to organize and to have a union. To the extent this board's initiatives advance that right, we support them."