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WASHINGTON -- In late 2008, a small group of certified nursing assistants in Mobile, Ala., made a bid to unionize. Two and a half years later, the nursing assistants' union hopes are still in limbo, but their little-known case has taken on national importance.
Specialty Healthcare, as the case is known, has become the next battleground in a highly public war that pits Republicans and business interests against the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) under the Obama administration.
At issue is how workers are organized into bargaining units. The Mobile nursing assistants tried to unionize as a group made up only of nursing assistants. Their employer, however, insisted that a slew of other nursing-home employees, from dietary aides to maintenance workers, be included in their unit, a stipulation that would make it more difficult for the nursing assistants to win an election to unionize. The Democratic-majority NLRB has taken up the case and suggested it may reevaluate the rules that define bargaining units -- not just for health care workers, but for workers in all industries.
Their decision just might remove some of the hurdles to unionizing. And that prospect has industry groups and their Republican allies very concerned.
Among those who've filed briefs decrying the NLRB's decision to take up the case: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, the American Health Care Association, the American Hospital Association, the anti-union Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).
NLRB critic Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) has taken the extraordinary step of asking the labor board to turn over internal documents related to its deliberations on the Specialty Healthcare case. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who's been defending the board against relentless attacks from Republicans in recent weeks, has called Kline's requests "improper" and said they raise "serious concerns" about lawmakers influencing the independent labor board.
A spokesman for Kline did not respond to requests for comment. Aaron Albright, a spokesman for Democratic members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said, "As far as we know, it's unprecedented to demand these sorts of documents in a pending case from the NLRB."