By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. labor movement has not gotten the sweeping changes to organizing rules that it wants from the Obama administration, but a new rule may give unions a modest boost.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Wednesday unveiled a rule that is expected to shorten the time frame for union elections. The board runs the elections.
The rule, which labor unions favor, would limit pre-election legal challenges and give more authority to NLRB hearing officials to speed up the process.
"This rule is about giving all employees who have petitioned for an election the right to vote in a timely manner and without the impediment of needless litigation," said NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce, a Democratic appointee of President Barack Obama.
Lawyers for the largest business lobbying group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, filed a lawsuit in Washington to try to block the rule, which is scheduled to take effect on April 30. They say election periods could become so short that they could "ambush" employers and violate their free-speech rights.
The rule echoes a high-profile dispute from Obama's first year in office in 2009 over how to run unionization elections.
Back then, labor unions hoped a Democratic-led Congress would give them the option of using "card check" elections, in which workers decide whether to unionize by signing a petition. The idea failed, leaving unions with the secret ballots that employers say reduce possible intimidation.
Unions have since turned their attention to what the NLRB can do under existing law.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the new NLRB rule a "modest but important" step. "Many more improvements are needed to protect workers' rights," he said.
U.S. union membership has declined. In 2010, 11.9 percent of wage and salary workers were union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was down from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available.
The NLRB strategy has limits for unions. One of their allies, Craig Becker, a former lawyer for the AFL-CIO and SEIU unions, will be forced to leave the board this month because he never received confirmation from the U.S. Senate.
After Becker leaves, the NLRB will not have the quorum it needs to function unless the Senate confirms Obama's pending nominees, or Obama appoints them during a Senate recess.
Separately, congressional Republicans have proposed restricting the NLRB's authority with legislation that would set election timelines and affect which employees could vote in a union election.
The courts will be another battleground. Randy Johnson, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the new rule "has no conceivable purpose but to make it easier for unions to win elections," thereby restricting the rights of employers.
"The elimination of these rights has long been on the wish list of organized labor, and the board has dutifully granted that wish today," Johnson said.
(Reporting by David Ingram. Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh)