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Board Wants Oakland Answers

The National Labor Relations Board has asked the city of Oakland, Calif., to explain why it has approved a local ordinance that compels Comcast Corp.’s local system to accept eased rules for union organizing.

In a letter to the city dated April 12, Eric Moskowitz, assistant general counsel for special litigation for the NLRB, said the regulator has “serious concerns” that the local ordinance conflicts with rights and obligations under federal labor law.

The board questioned the rationale behind a Feb. 28 ordinance adopted by the city council addressing unionizing by city franchisees. The ordinance requires those companies to “agree” to accept card checks as a method of unionizing. That means workers can form a union shop if a majority of them sign cards indicating their desire to organize.

This replaces the more lengthy campaign and election process supervised by the board.

City council members said the ordinance was necessary to protect the city’s “investment and business interests.” The ordinance is also designed to protect against disrupting communications systems and public services and interfering with the use or public streets or places. Those services could be affected by a strike and picket line, city officials indicated.

But the NLRB questions the city’s financial interests in the actions of a non-governmental entity — specifically the unions. It also wants to know how many franchisees are addressed by the ordinance and how the city administrator determines if and when the ordinance applies to a franchised business. It also wants to know how enforcement of the local policy does not conflict with the “uninterrupted free play of economic forces” in labor disputes.

The NLRB letter echoes concerns stated by Comcast Corp. in a lawsuit challenging the new law. Comcast officials believe their employees are fairly compensated and has opposed unioniziation efforts.

Comcast was near the end of four years of franchise negotiation when the ordinance was passed. Comcast officials also cited the ordinance as one reason it pulled the tentative agreement off the table. The company had tentatively agreed to pay $17 million in cash and services to compensate Oakland for franchise violations such as a delayed system upgrade. Comcast inherited those violations when it bought AT&T Broadband in 2002.