NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The National Labor Relations Board unveiled new rule changes Tuesday that could speed up votes on whether or not employees at a company want to belong to a union.
The proposed rules were cheered by the AFL-CIO and its allies in Congress.
"Our current system has become a broken, bureaucratic maze that stalls and stymies workers' choices," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "And that diminishes the voice of working people, creates imbalance in our economy and shrinks the middle class."
But the proposal prompted immediate criticism by anti-union groups and some Republicans, who argued it was another anti-job measure by the Obama administration.
"The proposal is the one of the administration's biggest gifts yet to organized labor," said Randy Johnson, the Chamber of Commerce's chief labor official. "It is an attempt to, simply put, bully companies into relinquishing their free speech rights."
The NLRB has come under increasing attack by Republicans in recent months, particularly for its case against Boeing for building a non-union plant in South Carolina set to open this summer.
The board's legal counsel said the plant is an attempt to punish Machinists in the Seattle area for previous strikes against Boeing (Fortune 500). The company says the case is improper interference in a proper business decision. That case is currently working its way through the court process.,
The NLRB said while the new election rule will remove delays, it does not spell out inflexible time deadlines to hold a vote.
"The current rules still seem to build in unnecessary delays, to encourage wasteful litigation, to reflect old-fashioned communication technologies, and to allow haphazard case-processing," said Wilma Liebman, chairman of the NLRB. "Resolving representation questions quickly, fairly, and accurately has been an overriding goal of American labor law for more than 75 years."
But Brian Hayes, the only Republican member of the board, voted against the proposed rule.
Unions win only about 44% of the votes when they file for a representation election, but that's because only about two-thirds of those election processes ever come to a vote. The rest are either dismissed by the NLRB or are withdrawn by the union in the face of strong opposition by the employer.
The typical time it takes to go from filing for an election to a vote is 38 days. However, that only includes the instances where a vote is actually held --and 90% of those votes come in cases without contested pre-election issues.
In the contested elections, the process typically is much longer as the two sides challenge which employees would be in a union and often file unfair labor practices charges against each other.
"There are too many choke points where workers who are asking for elections are being denied the right to vote," said Josh Goldstein, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. "This is a small step in the right direction, in that the rule is about allowing workers who are filing for an election to get to an actual vote."
But Patrick Semmens, legal information director for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said that the new rules could speed up the vote so much to give the union an unfair edge in the vote.
"The unions have often been at work for months or years, making promises to the employees," Semmens said. "What's at stake are employee rights, giving them time to sort through the facts and not be ambushed with an election before they get a chance to get the full story."
The NLRB said the quickest an election could be held if it is contested is in the 30-day time frame, but that's about half the time that contested elections now take. The new streamlined rules also apply to decertification elections when an employer or employee groups are trying to oust a union from a work place.
The rulemaking process will now consider public comment, including at a two-day hearing next month. The board would then vote on a final rule later this fall, although it could be challenged in court.
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