By Daniel Wiessner
(Reuters) - The agency that enforces U.S. labor laws on Wednesday made it easier for unions to organize small groups of a company's workforce, which could give them a key advantage in campaigns to unionize factories, warehouses, universities and other sprawling workplaces.
The Democrat-led National Labor Relations Board in a 3-2 decision threw out a standard that it had adopted in 2017, when it had a majority of Republican appointees, for deciding whether groups of workers with distinct jobs can hold elections to form bargaining units, which some business groups derisively call "micro unions."
Forming smaller bargaining units can be an important organizing strategy for unions when they lack support from a majority of employees. But business groups say that smaller units fracture workplaces and complicate collective bargaining.
The labor board on Wednesday revived a standard it had adopted in 2011, when it also had a majority of Democratic-appointed members, that says bargaining units are appropriate as long as the workers within them do not share an "overwhelming community of interest" with other employees.
The 2017 decision had placed the burden on unions to show that groups of workers were "sufficiently distinct" from other employees.
The U.S. president appoints NLRB members but the board is an independent agency and the White House does not control its decisions.
Under the 2011 test, the board approved units of FedEx drivers that excluded warehouse workers, cosmetic and perfume department workers at a Macy's Inc store in Massachusetts, and skilled trade workers at a Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant that left out production workers.
Wednesday's decision revived a union's bid to represent a group of ironworkers at a Michigan steel plant that excludes painters, drivers and other employees. An NLRB official had rejected the unit under the 2017 test.
The ruling comes during a surge in union organizing that began during the COVID-19 pandemic and has included unprecedented efforts to unionize Amazon.com Inc warehouses, Starbucks cafes, Apple Inc retail stores and video game developers.
NLRB Chair Lauren McFerran, a Democrat, said in a statement that the decision ensures that workers fully enjoy the freedom to associate with unions protected by federal law.
The board's two Republican members, Marvin Kaplan and John Ring, said in a dissenting opinion that the decision improperly favors unions while ignoring whether bargaining units "will facilitate efficient and stable collective bargaining."
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Josie Kao)