Clinton Nominee to Head NLRB Embodies Hopes of Organized Labor


The first thing you need to know about William B. Gould IV, who's slated to become new chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, is that he is crazy about baseball: a lifelong rabid Red Sox fan, a fantasy camper and a Major League Baseball salary arbitrator.

A lawyer and college professor, Mr. Gould relishes the intricate teamwork that yields success on the playing field and the intense competition that breeds it. In short, a perfect outlook for becoming head of the 58-year-old NLRB, which enforces labor laws governing employers and workers.

An academic who belonged to a union only once, during a student summer job, Mr. Gould embodies the hope of organized labor for a new outlook at the five-member board, which was mostly its nemesis for a decade of Republican appointments.

He abhors the agency's procedural delays, which largely disadvantage workers and unions' ability to organize them; he advocates that the NLRB go to court more often and more promptly to seek injunctions against unfair labor practices. He favors legislation to outlaw permanent replacement of strikers and criticizes the Reagan administration's obsession with fighting unions. Where a union-recognition election has been lost through unfair management actions, Mr. Gould would force the employer to negotiate with that union.

While the board's powers (and the impact of its decisions) may often be overstated by all sides, there's no question that a more aggressive NLRB would mark a significant change in the course of U.S. labor relations.

The board's outlook, and its presence in 52 offices nationwide, sets a tone and sends a message to the workplace beyond the individual case decisions in Washington.

President Clinton has the unprecedented opportunity to shape the NLRB swiftly to his views of labor-management issues in his first year of office: He can replace a majority of the board and its general counsel.

Mr. Gould's nomination does not seem to face serious opposition. The Senate confirmation hearing was delayed until last week by prolonged consideration of prior, controversial appointments, most recently that of M. Joycelyn Elders for surgeon general. The National Association of Manufacturers has questioned his dual roles of advocate for labor law reform and of impartial chairman of the board that decides cases under current law, but it has not opposed his confirmation. And the anti-union National Right to Work Committee predictably calls him "a protector of the privileges of the union elite."

But his extensive writings on labor provide ample ground for spirited debate. His latest book, "Agenda for Reform: The Future Employment Relationships and the Law", published this year, sets out a clear view of what he would do with the NLRB and with an antiquated national labor code. It's not exactly what you'd expect from a one-time lawyer for the United Auto Workers union.

For one thing, Mr. Gould strongly favors decision-making workplace teams of labor and management, sometimes called quality circles, as an important element of cooperation and competitiveness. Unions have typically opposed these teams, which are illegal under the 1935 Wagner Act as being "sham company unions." He calls this provision "the principal legal obstacle to labor-management cooperation."

The Stanford University law professor is also a proponent of greater union democracy, calling for direct election of national officers by member ballot instead of by convention delegates (which most unions prefer and use). He believes that employers should be given more leeway to lobby against union organizing. And he wants more attention given to issues affecting workers outside of organized unions, which only represent about 16 percent of the U.S. work force.

Still, Mr. Gould sees labor unions as essential for economic democracy, the best vehicle for representing workers, imperfect though unions may be. Unions need revitalization to help balance the equation of interests, he writes, as the political atmosphere of the 1980s suppressed their activity and swung the balance sharply to the side of management: "The plight of many workers, coupled with the inability of unions to represent them at the bargaining table, erodes the fabric of democratic institutions."

The doctrinaire anti-labor stance of the NLRB in the Reagan years changed somewhat just as George Bush was taking office. The backlog of undecided board cases has now been cut back to its lowest level in 25 years. And the NLRB has supported labor union objections to worker-management teams in two major cases recently, to the consternation of employers embracing the fashionable concept of worker participation in decisions.

The irony is that the decisions clash with the view of Bill Clinton, who is a staunch proponent of worker participation. So is his labor secretary, Robert B. Reich.

To shift the NLRB on that issue, however, may take legislation. And Mr. Gould is already active on that front, too, as one of 10 members of the president's Commission on the Future of Worker/Management Relations, which aims to re-examine the nation's labor laws that were mostly crafted a half-century ago. He is committed to staying on the panel, even after confirmation to the board, a possible conflict of roles that has raised some eyebrows in the employer sector.

Indeed, Mr. Gould has set out a bold agenda for labor law reform. The Wagner Act, he writes, "is now in complete disarray" because of management's ability to abuse the law and then rely on deadly delays and appeals at the NLRB. Strict timetables for decision and enforcement are needed. Congress should make it easier for workers to organize, and should enact a law banning replacement of striking employees.

New law is also required to permit workplace committees, he writes; the test should be "whether employer assistance is designed to thwart unionism."

No theoretical academician or rigid ideologue, Mr. Gould is a veteran of more than 200 tough labor arbitrations, gaining trust of both sides. He recognizes that employers must compete successfully in the global arena if there are to be worker jobs to protect. He has been complimentary of the NLRB's more even-handed administration under the current chairman, James M. Stephens.

A half-dozen books written by Mr. Gould lay out his practical philosophy of the workplace. They include a widely used college text on labor law, essays on arbitration, a review of Japanese influence of U.S. employment law and a study of discrimination against blacks in white-dominated unions. He's working on a book based on his great-grandfather's Civil War diary.

Mr. Gould would become the second black to serve on the labor board, but not necessarily the most powerful. The incumbent NLRB general counsel, Jerry M. Hunter, who alone has authority to issue a board complaint, is also an African-American.

Before coming to Stanford in 1972, Mr. Gould taught at Wayne State and Harvard universities. But he was also an attorney for the United Auto Workers, as well as a lawyer in private practice with employer clients. He spent two years as a staff attorney with the NLRB.

President Clinton's attentions have not been focused on pure labor issues. He wasn't the AFL-CIO's favorite during the primaries, backed by big labor only after he was the clear Democratic front-runner. But the labor movement has had greater access for its views, even when disagreeing with the White House on issues such as NAFTA. Labor has been pleased with Clinton appointments, and the new NLRB selections should reinforce that optimistic feeling.

Only with Bill Gould, a veteran baseball analyst, organized labor can't count on having a full-time cheerleader. In baseball salary arbitrations decided this year by Mr. Gould, the working men split a doubleheader: He agreed with Padres pitcher Andy Benes' demand for $2 million, but sided with Oakland ownership that infielder Jerry Browne was worth only $625,000.

Michael Burns is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad