11/30/2011 06:11 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2011

GOP Threatening Middle Class Through Anti-Union Bills: Dems

WASHINGTON -- Democrats and labor leaders went on the offensive against anti-union House Republicans Wednesday, accusing GOP members and business groups of threatening the country's middle class through a raft of legislation that could weaken unions.

At a forum hosted by the AFL-CIO, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) argued that Republican efforts to strip power from the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces labor law, were part of a broader attack on collective bargaining rights across the country. The fight, he added, was ultimately about "fairness and equity" in the economy.

"We've got to quit being on the defensive," Harkin said. "We have to take our case to the American people ... attacking [Republicans] for what they're trying to do. The American people are starting to understand how unfair the economic system is, how unfair it is for banks and the wealthy to get all the government largesse and for working people to get nothing."

The remarks from Harkin and others came just hours before the House passed one of several bills designed to limit the powers of the labor board, which Republicans have lambasted as overly sympathetic to unions and harmful to businesses during the Obama era. The GOP-sponsored Workforce Democracy and Fairness Act would scuttle a rule recently put forth by the labor board that would streamline the union election process and likely make it easier for workers to join unions.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) has claimed the board's rule would lead to "ambush elections" by unions, while supporters of the rule say it would merely remove red tape and give employers less time to pressure workers against unionization. The Republican measure enjoyed broad support from business heavyweights such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation, and the American Hotel & Lodging Association, though the legislation is unlikely to go far in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

In addition to holding four congressional hearings this year on what they've described as NLRB overreach, House Republicans have gone so far as to propose legislation that would strip the board of its powers or defund it entirely. Many GOP members were hoping that Brian Hayes, currently the board's lone Republican, would resign in order to kill the board's quorum and essentially shut it down. Hayes said Wednesday that he did not intend to.

At the AFL-CIO event, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said that the attacks on the labor board coming from Republicans are unlike anything he's seen "in all my time in public life."

"They have decided they don’t want the collective bargaining process to continue in this country," Miller said. "This isn’t some tinkering ... it's about ending this agency. [Labor law] is the basic fundamental economic underpinning of the middle class in this country. It’s the wages and benefits of the working people." In a reference to the Occupy Wall Street protests, Miller added, "That's why you see tents around this city and this country asking for shared sacrifice."

The forum at the AFL-CIO coincided with the release of a report on Republicans and the NLRB from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the lobbying arm of the well-known progressive think tank. Arguing that the American middle class has weakened as union ranks have thinned in recent decades, the report asserts that "House Republicans are using every tool available to them -- including their budget, regulatory, and legislative-oversight powers -- to wage a coordinated attack on workers' rights by trying to eviscerate the National Labor Relations Board."

The GOP's feud with the labor board started back in the spring, when the NLRB's general counsel, Lafe Solomon, filed a complaint against the Boeing Company. The complaint alleged that the aerospace giant broke labor law when it established a production line for its 787 Dreamliner in South Carolina. Solomon claimed that the move amounted to retaliation against Boeing's unionized workers in Washington state for having gone on strike in the past. The complaint put Boeing's plans in South Carolina on hold, but on Wednesday Boeing and the union reached a contract agreement that could resolve the complaint.

Although many labor experts say the complaint was not unusual, Republicans have portrayed it as an abuse of power, arguing that it will have a chilling effect on businesses. They said the same of the union election rules put forth by the labor board. In a discussion of the election rules on the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) said that the NLRB has "taken actions that directly oppose American job providers," adding that "job creators are terrified of the NLRB's actions."

The bill passed Wednesday would assure that no union election could take place within fewer than 35 days after a union has gathered enough signatures for a formal petition. Union backers argue that such a guarantee would give management more time to employ union-busting tactics, while Republicans said they simply want to give workers more time to get information. Kline said that workers "shouldn't be deprived of the opportunity to make an informed decision.

When the labor board announced the streamlined rules earlier this year, then-chairwoman Wilma Liebman said the board was merely hoping to resolve "representation questions quickly, fairly, and accurately."