The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) this week proposed sweeping changes to the federal rules governing union organizing elections, giving a boost to unions that have long called for the NLRB to give employers less time to fight representation votes. The proposed changes are the latest in a series of actions by NLRB and other agencies controlled by appointees of the Obama administration responding to calls from labor leaders for more union-friendly federal labor policies.

The agency’s proposal would likely compress the time between a formal call for a vote by workers on whether to join a union, and the election itself.  Some companies say cutting the lead time before an election would make it harder for them to build a case for opposing a union, because union campaigns often begin months earlier without an employer’s knowledge.

The NLRB said its proposed changes are meant to curb unnecessary litigation; streamline procedures before and after elections; and enable the use of electronic communications, such as requiring employers to give union organizers access to electronic files containing workers’ addresses and email addresses when available.

“This is another not so cleverly disguised effort to restrict the ability of employers to express their views during an election campaign,” said Randy Johnson, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president of labor, immigration, and employee benefits.

Unions were unsuccessful during the years when Democrats had control of Congress to win passage of a remake of union organizing rules known as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).  Since Democrats lost control of the House in 2010, union leaders have stepped up to pressure the Obama administration to sue its rule-making powers to achieve some of the same goals as the EFCA.

NLRB Chairman Wilma Liebman predicted in a statement this week that the proposals would be controversial.  The NLRB’s Democratic majority has the votes to adopt the rules, she said, but the board would approach the process with “open minds” and has invited public comment.  Public meetings have been scheduled on July 18 and 19.

The rules governing organizing are the focus of a power struggle between employers and  unions after several decades of declining union membership.  Only 6.9 percent of private sector workers belonged to unions in 2010, and just 11.9 percent of all U.S. workers, according to the Labor Department.  In 1983, unions represented 20.1 percent of all workers.  The struggle between employers and unions is expected to be a factor in the 2012 elections, and unions are currently facing moves in several states to curtail collective-bargaining rights.  Labor leaders have warned the Obama administration that union members would withhold campaign contributions for Democrats who do not support union causes.