The National Labor Relations Board issued a decision yesterday that experts say expands the definition of who can be considered a supervisor.
The ruling in Washington could have far-reaching implications for trade unions and at workplaces around the country.
The federal panel ruled 3-2 that permanent charge nurses at hospitals should be categorized as supervisors, meaning they would not be covered by the National Labor Relations Act and would be barred from joining a union.
The long-awaited NLRB decision involved nurses at Oakwood Health Care in Michigan. Charge nurses are responsible for overseeing patient units and can assign other nurses to provide care. The hospital claimed the charge nurses were supervisors, but a union seeking to represent them disagreed.
In its decision, the board said workers who assign duties should be considered supervisors, provided that they use independent judgment and are accountable for their orders.
The dissenting view, however, said the board's decision "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."
Some experts said yesterday's decision could affect a variety of other professions as well since several manage their workplaces in a similar fashion.
Those experts said the ruling broadened the labor board's interpretation of a supervisor, whose definition has traditionally hinged on the power to hire and fire.
As a result, some experts and union leaders argue that hundreds of thousands of workers in industries other than health care would be exempt from unionizing, thereby diminishing the power of the labor movement.
"The decision could also have an impact on the building trades, and other work sites, where you have workers who play some role in directing or coordinating work but traditionally have not been thought of as management," said Paul F. Clark, professor of labor studies and employment relations at Pennsylvania State University.
"This does open a door that is potentially problematic, even more problematic at first glance for the labor movement."
The liberal Economic Policy Institute estimated that as many as 8 million workers across a broad range of occupations, including computer systems analysts and scientists, cooks and secretaries, could lose their right to join a union. In Maryland, nearly 50,000 workers could be affected, according to the institute.
But Howard K. Kurman, a partner at Offit Kurman PA in Owings Mills, who advises employers on labor and employment issues, said the board's decision clarified standards for employers to determine which workers can be considered supervisors.
"I don't think a decision like this detrimentally affects the union's power to organize members."
Union groups, including the AFL-CIO, Change to Win and the American Federation of Teachers, denounced the board's decision yesterday, saying it would hurt low-level employees with minor authority.
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said the ruling allows "employers to strip millions of workers of their right to have a union by reclassifying them as supervisors in name only."
Clark, the Penn State professor, said the decision came at a time when labor unions have been having success in organizing nurses and other workers in the health care industry, while membership has diminished in other fields, including manufacturing.
Michelle Healy, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which represents 1,100 registered nurses in Maryland, said the board's ruling is an obstacle to organizing workers in the health industry.
Healy said the union's attorneys are exploring the decision's impact in Maryland, but did not expect it to affect nurses who are currently covered by contracts.
The Oakwood Health Care ruling was one of three issued yesterday that are collectively known as "Kentucky River" cases.
The other two rulings found:
Charge nurses at Golden Crest Healthcare Center in Minnesota did not meet the new guidelines issued in the Oakwood case because they were not accountable for others.
Lead employees at a manufacturing facility operated by Croft Metals in McComb, Miss., were not considered supervisors because they followed orders of top managers.
The three cases were filed with the NLRB to clarify the meaning of supervisor after a 2001 Supreme Court decision involving Kentucky River Community Care Inc. in Hazard, Ky.
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