NLRB Declares Supervisors ‘Supervisors’

The NLRB ruled yesterday that those workers who regularly supervise other workers are supervisors.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled yesterday that nurses with full-time responsibility for assigning fellow hospital workers to particular tasks are supervisors under federal labor law and thus not eligible to be represented by unions.

The 3-to-2 decision, long awaited by unions and businesses, sets a new standard for determining who is a supervisor in the modern economy and could have significant implications for efforts by labor unions to organize nurses in the fast-growing health-care sector. Under federal law, supervisors do not have the right to belong to unions.

[…]

The ruling defines workers as supervisors if they give assignments to other workers, if they are held responsible for the performance of those assignments and if they exercise independent judgment rather than follow an employer’s detailed instructions. NLRB members Wilma B. Liebman and Dennis P. Walsh, the only Democrats on the board, argued in dissent that the definition was so broad it “threatens to create a new class of workers under Federal labor law: workers who have neither the genuine prerogatives of management, nor the statutory rights of ordinary employees.”

Yet this is rather clearly not the case. As the story notes, “The NLRB disqualified only 12 of the [127] nurses [that the hospital tried to classify as supervisors] from belonging to the bargaining unit — all full-time ‘charge nurses’ whom the board deemed to be supervisors because of their responsibility for assigning and directing other workers on their shifts.” So, the NLRB recognized that those who spend “at least 10-15 percent of their total work time” doing supervisory tasks are, in fact, supervisors.

Kevin Drum sees this as part of an evil Republican plot to drive down wages:

This is, by the way, the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say that Republicans have made it steadily harder over the years to organize unions. Most people will never hear about this ruling, just as most have never heard of the dozens of other under-the-radar rulings, laws, regulations, and court decisions that have slowly chipped away at the ability of unions to organize over the years. But believe me: business lobbies have. And since this ruling mostly affects service industries, they can’t pretend that globalization has forced their hand. They just want to eliminate any organized pressure to pay their workers more.

Do businesses prefer to deal with workers as individuals rather than as a group? Sure. Would they prefer to avoid the risk of being blackmailed with group walkouts and forced to pay workers more than they would command in a free market? You bet.

At the end of the day, however, the United Autoworkers can still try to organize the vast majority of the nurses at Oakwood Healthcare Inc. (Do they fix cars when not working on patients? -ed. Apparently. Probably no more than 10-15 percent of their total work time, though. ) If 127 represents “two-thirds of the total bargaining unit,” then there are roughly 192 nurses at the facility. Of those, only 12 were added to the “supervisory” category as a result of this ruling. That’s a little over 6 percent. Does that sound like an inordinately high number of supervisors? Indeed, it sounds rather low to me for a profession in which at least an associate’s degree and often a bachelor’s degree is an entrance requirement.

That an auto workers’ union is trying to organize nurses shows how much the economy has changed since the bad old days. These aren’t low skilled, geographically bound workers stuck doing dangerous work at the only factory in town but rather highly skilled, high demand, mobile workers in a burgeoning industry doing relatively pleasant work for which they spent years training. Hospitals already have to pay high wages and offer competitive benefits to attract nurses, who are in shortage in much of the country. The idea that they need to band together in solidarity for protection is absurd.

Regardless, however, 94 percent of the nurses in question have the right to try.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. M1EK says:

    Your faux outrage over unions is notable, precisely because I’ve never seen you complain about the incorrect assignation of white-collar workers to supervisory/”professional” roles to avoid mandatory paid overtime (even guys stuck in jobs where they clock in, clock out, and never have any discretion about what they work on at any given time).

  2. James Joyner says:

    M1EK:

    I’ve never had a job where I was paid overtime even though many of my jobs were not, in the fullest sense, supervisory. When I taught college, for example, I didn’t get paid extra if I graded papers on Sundays or did research on professional articles during my vacation.

    Granted, I didn’t clock in or clock out and I had a lot of discretion as to when I did many of the aspects of the job. But that wasn’t a function of being a supervisor, merely the nature of the job.

  3. Bithead says:

    That an auto workers’ union is trying to organize nurses shows how much the economy has changed since the bad old days. These aren’t low skilled, geographically bound workers stuck doing dangerous work at the only factory in town but rather highly skilled, high demand, mobile workers in a burgeoning industry doing relatively pleasant work for which they spent years training. Hospitals already have to pay high wages and offer competitive benefits to attract nurses, who are in shortage in much of the country. The idea that they need to band together in solidarity for protection is absurd.

    Precisely.

    So, the only LOGICAL conclusion we’re left with is that there’s MONEY in it for the UNION.

    And with all of the competition being stripped out of the healthcare industry, we now have yet more fertile ground for the Unions. The only palce they survive in any great numbers is where there is no chance for competition to uproot them… such as, for example, Government workers… where the unions have their largest number of members of ANY group of workers they’ve ‘orginized’.

  4. M1EK says:

    James,

    You misunderstand: I have never seen you rail against the abuses (by white-collar and blue-collar employers) of the distinction the law makes between supervisory AND/OR professional employees and people eligible for overtime.

    If you’re a programmer, for instance, you might work in a company where you have some control over your hours and assignments, but you could also be working in a shop where you must clock in and clock out. Big difference. Yet, again, I’ve never seen you (or most other economists) arguing that the misclassification of such workers as ineligible for overtime is worthy of scorn.

  5. Mark says:

    It will be interesting to see how things go a year from now. I anticipate this ruling will be used by employers in other industries outside the current nursing case. We’ll see what percentage of workers get reclassified in those instances.

    Regardless, I can see how business owners might celebrate this ruling: “yeah, we just cut down the number of people eligible for unions by 6%”. One more nail in the union’s coffin.

  6. madmatt says:

    Just government looking out for corporate needs as opposed to the needs of the working man once again…yes those nurses were getting too wealthy taking care of the sick…I am sure executive pay was suffering!

  7. James Joyner says:

    M1EK:

    I’m not sure I understand your point.

    My general view of worker-employer relations is that if the working conditions are not to your satisfaction, you should find a better job.

    Regardless, what do I have if a programmer has to clock in or out? What has this to do with whether supervisory nurses are supervisors or whether professional workers even need to unionize?

  8. James Joyner says:

    matt: Your comment is nonsensical.

  9. M1EK says:

    “My general view of worker-employer relations is that if the working conditions are not to your satisfaction, you should find a better job.”

    Of course it is.

    Hint: Why did people unionize in the first place?

  10. M1EK says:

    And as for the relevance – in both the overtime case and this supervisory-eligibility-for-unions case, big business has successfully lobbied the Republicans for relief from labor laws which were a big part of generating yesterday’s middle class from which today’s university professors indirectly sprung.

    One could argue that a well-qualified individual worker never needs fear the macroeconomic effects of such changes, but one would in that case be so stunning ignorant of history that they could only be classified as a shill.

  11. James Joyner says:

    Matt:

    Supervisors have been excluded from the NLRA since Taft-Hartley; it’s hardly a novel idea. And the middle class has somehow managed to survive since 1947, when it was enacted.

    One could argue that, at the macroeconomic level, unions are actually detrimental to workers. Certainly, the UAW has managed to just about kill off the domestic auto industry.

  12. madmatt says:

    Hey james, guess you missed the news on rising wage disparity, on executive corruption and fraudulent accounting practices, and non funding of pensions.

    As far as unions killing the auto industry in america, as a detroiter I can tell you that executive incompetence is more to balme for losses than worker pay….and those execs keep getting their bonuses and stock options even when they fail to do their job competently.
    If they had used the billions in tax breaks they get for R & D properly, they might have developed a car that people want to buy or that gets better than 25mpg.

  13. M1EK says:

    James,

    The UAW has next to nothing to do with killing off the domestic auto industry. One might more credibly point to the management at those companies, compared to those at Toyota or Honda.

  14. James Joyner says:

    M1EK/matt: No doubt the management could be better. But they got forced by the unions to give ridiculous pension and benefit packages that are now crippling the industry. Their foreign counterparts, even in wealthy countries like Germany and Japan, don’t have that albatross.

  15. Tano says:

    “One could argue that, at the macroeconomic level, unions are actually detrimental to workers.”

    Yeah, one could argue just about anything, given one’s motivation and a modicum of rhetorical skills. That doesnt necessarily mean that the argument makes any sense.

    “Certainly, the UAW has managed to just about kill off the domestic auto industry.”

    Nonsense. The pension and health benefits were actually championed by management because of their disinclination to support the far more rational solution of national health care / insurance. In any case, the decline of the American auto industry has far more to do with the fact that the Japs make better cars, and cars that more people are interested in buying.

    Unions have been, indisuputably, the major factor in the rise of the middle class. To the extent that unions are on the decline, so is the relative standard of living of the middle class.

    The libertarian view of labor, that it is to be viewed as nothing but an additional expense, like machinery, leads to the situation in which workers are paid as little as possible and subject to constant efforts to further reduce any expense heading in their direction. So we have an erosion of health benefits, retirement benefits, jobs themselves heading to cheaper markets overseas – a relentless assault on the middle class.

    No ideology yields a perfect world – even the best of them have weaknesss and areas of inapplicability. The attitudes here represented are an extension of libertarian ideology to a point where it is more problematical than useful, for it fails to recognize the humanity, and human needs of this business expense called “labor”,

  16. M1EK says:

    “No doubt the management could be better. But they got forced by the unions…”

    No, they didn’t get ‘forced’ by anybody to do anything. They made these deals to preserve their own golden geese. And, frankly, the reason Toyota never had to deal with such a union is because their management treated their workers better to begin with.

  17. James Joyner says:

    What “golden geese” were they preserving?

    And, no, Toyota is dealing with a subservient worker class in a socialistic country. Hardly the same milieu.

  18. Steve Verdon says:

    Yeah, one could argue just about anything, given one’s motivation and a modicum of rhetorical skills. That doesnt necessarily mean that the argument makes any sense.

    [snip]

    Unions have been, indisuputably, the major factor in the rise of the middle class. To the extent that unions are on the decline, so is the relative standard of living of the middle class.

    Case in point quoted above. I’d be curious to see the data that the standard of living is declining.

  19. Bithead says:

    Why did people unionize in the first place?

    Hint: What has THAT to do with TODAY?

  20. M1EK says:

    James,

    The management were preserving their own cushy jobs and what they thought were inviolable chunks of market share. Prior to the Asian invasion, the US auto market was more like an oligopoly than any kind of competition.

    And even if you’re right – what’s stopping Toyota’s workers from wanting to unionize _today_? You know, the ones in the USA?

  21. James Joyner says:

    M1EK

    What’s stopping Toyota’s workers from wanting to unionize _today_? You know, the ones in the USA?

    Toyota and the other foreign auto manufacturers who have set up shop in the USA have had the good sense to do so in Right to Work states with a strong antipathy to unions. They pay above prevailing wage rates in states that have much lower costs of living than in the Rust Belt.

    And to say that unions have contributed mightily to the problem is not to absolve management. They’re clearly major contributors to their own demise as was.

  22. Rick DeMent says:

    They pay above prevailing wage rates in states that have much lower costs of living than in the Rust Belt.

    and they do this because they want to keep the shops non-union so they pay union wages and benifit. The workers in these non-union shops are bennifiting fomr the unions, you might say they are “free-riding”. Without the unions the wages would be smiler to any other industry that has traditionally been non-union, service sector to name one.