WASHINGTON — Nurses permanently assigned to run hospital shifts should be considered supervisors and thus exempt from U.S. union protections, a federal panel held Tuesday in a decision that could have major implications for the broader labor force.
The National Labor Relations Board, in a 3-2 ruling, said people who work supervisor shifts only on a rotating basis may be exempt from supervisory status in some cases but not others, depending on the frequency and consistency of the shifts.
The decision in the “Kentucky River” cases was long awaited by both organized labor and business.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney immediately denounced it, saying the ruling invites employers “to strip millions of workers of their right to have a union by reclassifying them as supervisors in name only.”
“It’s a big blow to workers who want to be in a union,” said Nancy Schiffer, an attorney for the AFL-CIO. “If an employer gives you supervisory responsibility, you lose the right to have a voice at work.”
The decision was one of three related rulings issued Tuesday, grouped as the “Kentucky River” cases because they were intended to clarify the supervisor question from a case several years ago involving Kentucky River Community Care Inc.
The decision offers employers “a good, clear standard” on which workers are supervisors, said Stephen Bokat, attorney for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“When undergoing organizing efforts by unions, you have to know who in the work force belongs to you and who belongs to the union,” he said.
Labor unions had been closely watching the decision in the case of Oakwood Health Care, involving an acute care facility in Michigan — concerned that thousands of workers now under union protection could lose their federal protection under labor law. They were trying to determine how the decision could affect supervisors in a broad range of industries.
Sweeney said the NLRB is dominated by Bush administration lawyers. He also noted a dissenting view, which said the ruling “threatens to create a new class of workers under federal labor law: workers who have neither the genuine prerogatives of management nor the statutory rights of ordinary employees.”
He charged that the NLRB has been chipping away at union rights through decisions limiting the eligibility of other groups of workers — the disabled, temporary employees and teaching assistants — to join unions.
The decision is likely to be challenged all the way to the Supreme court, where twice before the high court has overturned such rulings and remanded them to the NLRB for more work.
The board considered such issues as a supervisor’s use of independent judgment and the assignment and direction of staff.
In two related cases, the NLRB ruled:
• Charge nurses at Golden Crest Healthcare Center in Hibbing, Minn. did not carry out supervisory work, using the definitions outlined in the lead Oakwood case.
• Lead employees at Croft Metals, Inc. in McComb, Miss. did not exercise supervisory authority under federal law, using those same definitions in the Oakwood case.
The unions directly involved were the United Auto Workers in the Oakwood case, the United Steel Workers in the Golden Crest case and the Boilermakers union in the Croft Metals case.