Labor strains

Some Detroit newspaper strikers were losing homes, losing marriages, losing faith, anxiously waiting for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington to rule in their labor dispute. A favorable ruling, they knew, could force the papers to rehire them with back pay.

What was taking so long? workers repeatedly asked.

William B. Gould IV provides the answer. In his new book, Labored Relations: Law, Politics and the NLRB (MIT Press, 395 pp.), the former NLRB chairman says an inefficient board shamelessly dragged its feet on cases in 1997-98, creating an untenable backlog that included the Detroit newspaper case. Politics, he says, played a role.

Chairman from 1994-98, Gould writes that key GOP congressmen tirelessly tried to delay and unduly influence NLRB rulings. Politicians tried to intimidate board members, some of whom he suggests delayed pro-union decisions out of fear that hostile Republicans would block their reappointments.

Gould puts Democratic board member Sarah M. Fox squarely in that category; he writes that she solely held up the decision on unfair labor practice charges against the Detroit newspapers in 1998. It was only after U.S. Rep David Bonior, D-Mt. Clemens, called her, at Gould’s suggestion, that the ruling was quickly issued, Gould writes.

Delays, Gould notes, often favored companies and enabled them to avoid — sometimes for years — paying out more money to union workers or reinstating them in strikes or firings.

Fox denies Gould’s accusations.

“I have not read Mr. Gould’s book, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the internal deliberations of the board,” Fox said in a phone interview. She added that any suggestion that she was influenced “by outside political pressure or concern over my own prospects for confirmation is absolutely false.”

In any event, Gould’s detailed memoir can be melted down into one word: frustration.

President Bill Clinton selected Gould to chair the five-member board, which was created by Congress in 1935 to govern labor-management relations and guarantee the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively. A Cornell Law School graduate, Gould had worked on the UAW legal staff in Detroit in the 1960s and for a law firm representing employers. He had taught at Wayne State University and Stanford.

By tradition, under a Democratic president, Gould headed a board of three Democrats and two Republicans.

But he writes that the Democrats were ineffective in his last two years, resulting in an elephantine backlog — at a time the Detroit newspaper case languished before the board.

“My reliance on the Republicans for case productivity was pathetic … when it should have been in the interest of the Democrats to work with me,” writes Gould, 64, who returned to Stanford after his NLRB term.

In his book, which is sprinkled liberally with snippets from his diary, Gould describes the Detroit newspaper strike as “one of the most celebrated and contentious labor disputes in the country during my term.”

For example, on March 30, 1996, about eight and a half months into the strike, he attended a luncheon at the Gannett corporate headquarters, and sat with Frank Vega, the CEO of the Detroit Newspapers and a vice president of Gannett, which owns the Detroit News.

“Both made reference to the fact that they hoped that differences could be resolved with the unions and the strike in Detroit,” his diary notes. “But it does not appear as though that is going to happen. They seem to be in a fight to the finish.” In another section, he writes that company officials “have written us off completely and their strategy is to attack us.”

Republican meddling was never ending, Gould writes. They tried to intimidate members and sabotage the board with budget cuts. They tried to bring the board to a standstill, suggesting, for example, that the board refrain from issuing rulings when it was down a member or two; then they would delay forwarding names of prospective nominees to fill vacancies.

“The political attacks on the agency took their toll internally and were translated into inaction,” Gould writes. Republicans in Congress “sought to influence or halt the decision-making process all together.”

Gould writes that the Democrats, including those at the White House, sometimes nudged the board to make a decision, as in Bonior’s case, but without trying to influence outcomes. Republicans, however, often tried.

He cites no examples where they had success, but writes that they were able to stymie policies that would have made the NLRB more effective.

Still, corporations never stopped trying to influence board rulings through Congress.

“Industries and corporations that thought they had been (or might be) harmed by the board’s decision immediately ran to the Republican Congress,” he writes.

On March 11, 1997, four Republican senators on the Labor Committee — Dan Coates, Ind.; Mike DeWine, Ohio; Bill Frist, Tenn.; and Judd Gregg, N.H. — wrote Gould voicing the concerns of the Detroit newspapers and questioning the statements made by the Detroit Regional Director of the NLRB at a key point in the strike. At issue was the regional director’s push for a so-called 10j injunction to immediately enforce an administrative law judge’s ruling to force the company to take back its striking workers — even if that meant the company had to lay off replacement workers. The board sought the injunction anyway — even as the case was pending before the NLRB. Gould writes that the 10j was necessary because he knew a quick decision from the board wasn’t forthcoming.

But that August, U.S. District Judge John O’Meara in Detroit refused to grant the injuction, and the conservative Court of Appeals in Cincinnati subsequently upheld his ruling.

The following year, the unions were temporarily victorious. The NLRB board voted 5-0 that the strike was prompted by unfair labor practices, a finding that required the papers to take back strikers with back pay. The papers appealed.

Earlier this year, a conservative, anti-union U.S. appeals court panel in Washington overturned the boards’ 5-0 ruling, relieving the papers of the legal obligation to take back strikers and provide back pay.

In a recent telephone interview, Gould said once he saw who the appeals court judges were, he figured, “This was the worst possible panel that we could have in the Court of Appeals.”

The ruling left many Detroit newspaper union workers disillusioned about labor laws and the NLRB.

Gould understands.

“In recent years some union leaders, discouraged by the anti-union climate in Washington, have stated that they are abandoning the board and looking elsewhere for more effective solutions,” he writes. “Nonetheless, the unions still need the law and the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.”

It’s an eye opener, a compelling read for people interested in labor and politics. On the downside, it’s a little too long and includes too much detail for a casual reader.

In his conclusion, Gould cites the need for big-time labor law reform and judges willing to uphold the labor laws. And he calls for a law banning permanent replacement workers in any strike. Had such a law been in place, the Detroit papers would have felt more pressure to settle and the costly unfair labor litigation could have been avoided.

Gould says he hasn’t spoken to any of his former colleagues about the book. “I’m sure they won’t be pleased,” he says.

Probably a good guess, based on board member Fox’s response. But unionists won’t be so pleased either, reading how the Republicans tried to sabotage labor law.

Allan Lengel was a striking Detroit News reporter and among those in the sit-down picture above. He now works at the Washington Post. Send comments to [email protected]
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