Putting the squeeze on middle managers

KAI RYSSDAL: Are you a manager? Or are you a worker bee. Or do you fall somewhere in the mushy middle. Because sometimes, it can be tough to tell. That obviously has big implications for labor law. And Marketplace's Scott Tong reports any day now... the government's expected to hand management a major victory.


SCOTT TONG: In a hospital, the charge nurse is a kind-of manager. Take Jennifer Henry of Fletcher Allen Hospital in Vermont. She takes care of patients, but also does other stuff: scheduling shifts, checking discharges, being a mentor.
JENNIFER HENRY: The charge nurse is overseeing the entire floor. Sort of being a coordinator, you know, a helper. To be able to make sure that the care is done safely and in a timely fashion.

Legally, she's not a supervisor. That's according to years of rulings by the National Labor Relations Board — that's kind of the government referee in these things. Which means charge nurses can now join organizing drives and strike. They can negotiate benefits, and speak up at work with protections against being fired.

HENRY: Being able to say that I as a nurse can only take four patients and not the six or seven that the hospital might want me to take is really important to nurses.

But in the next few weeks, the labor board is expected to expand the definition of supervisor. And depending on the wording, it could give millions of Jennifer Henrys a forced promotion. They'd have to say adios to collective bargaining rights.

All of which makes Joel Cohen cheer. He's a lawyer for hospitals and nursing home management.

JOEL COHEN: Charge nurses do have supervisory aspects to their duties. They assign work to other registered nurses and to aides.

Both sides say the upcoming ruling will undercut health care workers' ability to organize, since it takes the most experienced workers out of the picture. But Cohen says it's bigger than that: All kinds of workers — anyone who does some level of delegating or teaching — could lose their union rights.

COHEN: That would include attorneys, accountants, physical therapists, occupational therapists, engineers.

And, by the way, reporters. The way employers see it, it's all about loyalty. Here's John Lyncheski, who also advises management.

JOHN LYNCHESKI: They're paying these people to be supervisors. They're trusting them to do certain things on behalf of the business or the institution. And they want to be assured that they're able to do so.

Management folks say the labor board is about to get it right after years of misinterpreting the law. In other words, it's about time. To labor types, it's about politics.

ROSS EISENBREY: This is the most anti-worker, anti-labor board that I've ever seen.

Ross Eisenbrey is with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. He notes the labor board is always controlled by the White House, but this one is more one-sided than ever.

EISENBREY: They've taken away bargaining rights for graduate teaching assistants, temporary employees, disabled employees. In decision after decision they side with the employers.

And when the bosses hold the negotiating cards, he says they keep the economic spoils. It's no accident in his mind that all workers are losing purchasing power, even the most educated workers.

EISENBREY: The economy's grown, our output per hour is rising. It's not being shared with average working people. And one huge reason for that is that unions are being decimated.

Not everyone buys that. But where the two sides do agree is in the coming days the government will take a whole lot of folks in the gray area between worker and boss and toss them over the Mason-Dixon Line of labor disputes.

They'll become management.

In Washington, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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