WASHINGTON -- Federal officials unveiled new rules on Friday that will streamline and simplify the union election process, a reform long sought by labor unions and fiercely opposed by businesses.
Among other changes, the rules issued by the National Labor Relations Board will limit some of the litigation that can precede a union election, making it harder for parties to stall or drag out the process. The reforms will also allow unions to file election petitions and other documents via email, and they will require employers to provide unions with the email addresses and phone numbers of workers eligible to vote.
Many employers favor the older, slower election process, as it gives them more time to dissuade workers from unionizing. The reforms announced Friday have long been discussed and debated, and businesses have argued that they would infringe on the businesses' free speech rights and lead to "ambush" or "quickie" elections.
The labor board -- or at least its left-leaning majority appointed by President Barack Obama -- disagrees. In a statement Friday, the agency said the changes would "modernize" procedures and allow it to "more effectively administer" the laws on collective bargaining. In a sign of the partisan divide at play, the rules were approved by the board's three liberal members, while its two conservative members dissented.
Labor groups have long bemoaned the current process as outdated and tied up with red tape, giving employers ample time to bust unions. Companies often dispute which workers should belong in the bargaining unit -- that is, the people who would be covered by the union contract -- and the reforms announced Friday will shift that litigation to after the election. Employers will also have to prove that a review of the election is warranted, as opposed to merely requesting one.
Mark Gaston Pearce, the labor board's chairman, said in a statement that he was "heartened" that the board is enacting the amendments.
"Simplifying and streamlining the process will result in improvements for all parties," Pearce said. "With these changes, the Board strives to ensure that its representation process remains a model of fairness and efficiency for all."
The rules were announced in the Federal Register on Friday and will go into effect on April 14, 2015.
The board put forth a similar batch of rules more than three years ago, drawing heat from various business lobbying groups as well as congressional Republicans. After a federal court ruled that the board had lacked a quorum when it issued them, the board formally withdrew those rules early this year. It had been expected to reissue similar rules now that it has five confirmed board members.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, applauded the announcement of the rules Friday.
"The modest but important reforms to the representation election process announced today by the National Labor Relations Board will help reduce delay in the process and make it easier for workers to vote on forming a union in a timely manner," Trumka said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the National Retail Federation, an industry lobby, said it was considering "both a legal and legislative strategy" to block the rules from going into effect, calling them "the latest attempt by the Obama Administration to aid their allies in Big Labor at the expense of employers and employees."
Republicans in Congress have already held hearings on what they deem the "ambush" election rules and may well hold more once the GOP takes control of both chambers next year. They could potentially try to block the rules from going into effect -- though not in the immediate future, since members of Congress are already far along in hammering out a deal this week to fund the government. By waiting to release the rules Friday, the labor board may at least have avoided a GOP-sponsored rider in the spending bill that could gut the rules.