updated 10/3/2006 8:56:16 PM ET 2006-10-04T00:56:16

Nurses permanently assigned to run work shifts should be considered supervisors and thus exempt from U.S. labor protections, a federal panel held Tuesday in a decision that potentially has major implications for workers in other fields.

The National Labor Relations Board, in a 3-2 ruling, also said people who work supervisory 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 ruling in the “Kentucky River” cases was long awaited by both organized labor and business.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney denounced the ruling as inviting employers “to strip millions of workers of their right to have a union by reclassifying them as ’supervisors’ in name only.”

Stephen Bokat, an attorney for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, praised the decision as providing “a good, clear standard” on what workers are supervisors.

“When undergoing any organizing efforts by unions, you have to know who in the work force belongs to you and who belongs to the union,” he said.

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 ruling was described by former NLRB chair William Gould as “a radical reinterpretation of the statute to make it more difficult for ’charge nurses’ to organize.

“This decision constitutes a flawed and erroneous interpretation,” said Gould, who served on the NLRB in the 1990s and is now a professor at Stanford Law School. “It has potential for harm to the collective bargaining process.”

Democratic lawmakers including Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California joined with labor leaders in harshly criticizing the decision.

Anna Burger of the Change to Win Federation, a group of unions that split with the AFL-CIO last year, called it “another example of the Bush administration’s disdain for the rights of working men and women.”

Labor unions had been closely watching the decision involving an acute care facility in Michigan run by Oakwood Health Care, because they were concerned that thousands of workers could lose their union protection under labor law.

In their dissents, two NLRB members said millions of professionals who currently have some supervisory duties could be hurt by the ruling.

The decision “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,” they wrote.

The decision is likely to be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which has twice rejected prior Board decisions for failing to give adequate consideration to such issues as a supervisor’s use of independent judgment and the assignment or direction of staff. In those cases, the Board found that nurses who direct other employees in their patient care duties are not supervisors. The court sent the issue back to the board for more work.

Barbara Medvec, chief nursing officer for Oakwood Healthcare Inc., said that “charge nurses” work day in and day out and this validates the work they do as supervisors.”

The board considered such issues as a supervisor’s use of independent judgment and the assignment and direction of staff.

The ruling didn’t clearly say when workers who supervise only some of the time could be ruled as supervisory staff, said Cheryl Johnson, president of the United American Nurses.

“The NLRB was designed to protect the work force and the fact they would come up with anything that could jeopardize workers is problematic,” she said.

In two related cases, the NLRB also 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.

Former NLRB member John Raudabaugh, now a labor specialist with an international law firm, said he sees the decision as causing some changes in labor-employee relationship, but he criticized those who characterize the ruling as an attack on organized labor.

“I see isolated thunderstorms,” he said, “but not a tsunami.”

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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