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November 25, 2014

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Obama signals big shift in labor policy

Three friendly to unions tapped for key positions

President Barack Obama’s decision to tap three veterans of the labor movement for crucial posts signals a strong, if expected, shift from the Bush administration’s tilt toward business on labor issues.

Obama named Mary Beth Maxwell, a founder of the card-check-advocacy group American Rights at Work, as a senior adviser at the Labor Department. Maxwell’s appoint-

ment is a boost for the Employee Free Choice Act, the so-called card-check bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions. Maxwell will work with the White House Task Force on Middle Class Working Families.

Obama also nominated two veteran labor lawyers to the National Labor Relations Board. The five-member panel has been operating with just two members since late 2007, amassing a backlog of cases of disputes between workers and management.

Nominee Craig Becker is currently associate general counsel for the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, and a longtime law professor. Mark Pearce is a career labor lawyer in private practice.

If confirmed by the Senate, they will join Wilma Liebman, whom Obama tapped as chairman in January, as Democratic appointees to the panel. The panel has one Republican appointee and one vacancy.

Labor advocates see a pendulum swing from the Bush administration.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said Becker and Pearce “understand the importance of workers’ rights, collective bargaining and the need to restore balance to the National Labor Relations Board.”

Josh Goldstein, spokesman for American Rights at Work, said Maxwell’s appointment is “a great success for the campaign to have someone like her at the highest level.”

The Employee Free Choice Act remains one of the most divisive issues in Washington. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said recently he still expects a vote this year.

The bill would allow workers to form unions if the majority of employees sign a card of support rather than voting by secret ballot.

Unions say the law is needed because management drags out the election process and intimidates workers. Business says workers will be intimidated without the privacy of a mandatory secret ballot. (Under the proposed law, secret ballots could st ill be used if workers decide they prefer that method.)

The National Labor Relations Board has been slow to resolve organizing disputes.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Glenn Spencer said the new board could have great influence — perhaps even reducing the need for the card-check bill.

“With the new chairman and these board members, you’ll see some changes in this policy that I think the unions will be happy with,” Spencer said.

But Patrick Szmanski, general counsel at the Change to Win union, said the Employee Free Choice Act is still needed to change the underlying labor law to prevent delays and management actions now considered legal.

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