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Policy: Labor

NLRB ruling further expands 'micro unions'

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,NLRB,AFL-CIO

In a case involving a Macy's department store cosmetics counter, the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday further expanded its recent precedents allowing for so-called "micro-unions." The ruling will make it easier for unions to organize individual parts of an employer's workforce, a strategy Big Labor is increasingly turning towards to bolster its sagging membership.

Until recently, federal labor law required that a union must try to get the backing of a majority of all a workplace's employees to be certified. This can create a fairly high bar that labor organizers cannot always clear. However, in a 2011 case called Specialty Hardware, the NLRB reversed decades of precedent and said it would allow the organization of individual groups in a workforce.

A three-member board majority -- all appointed by President Obama and one a former top AFL-CIO lawyer -- expanded that precedent further Tuesday in the case of Macy's and Local 1445 United Food and Commercial Workers. Specifically, they affirmed a regional NLRB director's decision to allow the UFCW to pursue unionizing just the store's cosmetics salespeople.

The practical effect of the decision will be to make it easier for unions to organize those particular sub-groups of employees inclined to support them, giving them a foothold in workplaces where they otherwise would not be able to sustain a labor group.

In it's decision the majority argued that cosmetics sales was so vastly different from anything else in the store that it justified singling out that staff as a distinct group to be organized. Among other things, the NLRB cited as a compelling reason the fact that: "Fragrances beauty advisors also keep client lists, which they use to invite customers to new fragrance launches."

In a dissent, Republican nominee Philip Miscimarra said the decision "departs from the board's long-held retail-industry standards." He argued the majority's standard was absurdly broad and could easily apply to any other employee group: "Salespeople across the store must have specialized, technical knowledge about the products they sell."

NLRB boardmember Kent Hirozawa, one of the three-member majority, wrote a separate opinion responding to Miscimarra defending the decision. He nevertheless conceded the significance of the change, noting that it would likely boost organized labor.

"If the result is that parties are better able to predict which potential units will be found appropriate, and consequently more petitioned-for units are approved, we should view that not as suspicious, but as a success," Hirozawa concluded.

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