By Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. union organizers squared off against powerful business interests on Thursday over whether proposed federal rule changes for union organizing are an overdue procedural update or a radical step that would put employers at a disadvantage.
The U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Thursday and Friday is hearing input from unions, workers and businesses on the board's proposals to modernize its rules for union elections, which includes allowing electronic signatures and expediting pre-election hearings.
Employers, backed by their trade associations and lobbying groups, have said the NLRB's plan will allow union organizers to hold so-called "ambush elections" that would give companies little time to respond.
Unions and worker advocates have said this doomsday scenario is hyperbole.
The NLRB's priority is protecting the right of workers to organize and improve working conditions, not weighing the power balance between unions and employers, Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld attorney Caren Sencer told the board Thursday.
"It is not an agency designed to balance interests," said Sencer, who represents unions and workers in employment disputes.
The NLRB is an 80-year-old federal agency that oversees union elections, protects workers' rights to take collective action and polices unfair labor practices in the private sector.
Three Democrats and two Republicans serve on the board.
For decades the NLRB has been a battleground where political parties have waged ideological war over organized labor's role in the U.S. workforce. Pro-labor Democrats frequently spar with pro-management Republicans over the board's composition, case decisions and administrative procedure.
The NLRB said it was considering revising its union election rules in February. The proposals resemble ones the board adopted in 2011, but which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups challenged and a federal court threw out on procedural grounds.
Now, the board is revisiting the issue and the proposals are proving no more popular with employers the second time around. Labor unions largely support the amendments.
One revision would let workers use electronic signatures to say whether they support holding a union election. This would lead to fraud, management attorneys told the board on Thursday.
A union representative countered that electronic signatures are used on everything from Internet purchases to submitting binding legal documents such as wills.
Another revision, meant to save time and money, would require parties to submit written statements about disputed issues before a pre-election hearing, saving lawyers from having to prepare for every possible eventuality, union attorneys said.
But Proskauer Rose attorney Ronald Meisburg, representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, disagreed. He said the requirement would be a dramatic departure from board procedure that would leave small businesses scrambling.
"The due process rights of employers, particularly small employers, should not be sacrificed," Meisburg told the board.
A committee in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has advanced two bills that would block or undo the changes the board has proposed. The bills are likely dead in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Lisa Shumaker)