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Dollars are at stake over a bit of tape

Wed., March 28, 2012, midnight

Sometime this year, you may see a new governmental notice in the lunchroom or HR office at work. You may not even notice it, given that it will be full of the usual jargon, legalese and fine print as the governmental notices that you’re already ignoring.

What you may not realize is that this poster is one of the things that’s stifling the economy. Killing jobs. Ruining America.

A burdensome regulation.

The new rule from the National Labor Relations Board requires employers to post notices informing employees of their legal right to unionize. It does not require them to produce or design the notice. No. Employers will have to open a government Web page, print it off and hang it up.

It’s a miracle we even have an economy left.

This bit of printing and paper hanging is estimated by the Heritage Foundation to carry an economic burden to the American economy of several billion dollars. It’s one of the examples in the foundation’s latest report on regulation under the Obama administration. The report says that 32 new major regulations were added in 2011, and it concludes that the administration’s regulation-cutting effort is, like global warming, a myth.

“This regulatory excess is evident in lackluster job creation and anemic economic growth,” the report says.

Among the evidence for excess: Coal plants and incinerators will have to pump less toxic pollution into the air. Well, eventually they’ll have to pump less toxic pollution into the air – if new Environmental Protection Agency regulations ever take effect. As of now, they’re on hold during a court battle.

The most regulations, in sheer number, are new rules stemming from the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. They require more honesty in securities trading and put limits on debit-card fees, among other requirements. One rule will require shareholders to approve the massive salaries and bonus packages paid to CEOs. The Heritage Foundation report estimates that these additional shareholder votes will cost the economy $7.8 million.

Those are some very expensive theoretical elections. But “the far larger cost is the risk of losing executive talent, a cost that is probably unquantifiable, but has very real impact.”

That’s the upside of the regulatory burden – it’s so hard to quantify, you can guess ridiculously high. Not long ago, the Senate Republican Caucus produced a “report” that tallied the regulatory burden for 2011 at $230 billion. It included regulations that did not exist, had been proposed and rejected, had not yet taken effect, or had been merely been feared, in media quotations, by business owners.

The Heritage Foundation uses a more sober figure for the cost of three years of Obama regulations: $46 billion. That’s in part because Heritage math is slightly more oriented toward facts. And by “facts,” I mean “things someone has written down on a piece of paper.”

The poster-hanging regulation is a good example of that. It involves some assertions that have definitely been written down on paper. The NLRB estimates that compliance will cost each business about $65, for a national total of $386 million. That might seem like a very, very high estimate for printing a notice and hanging it in the break room, given that one sheet of 11-by-17 paper costs 2 or 3 cents.

But according to Heritage math, the burden associated with hanging those posters is likely to be $3.5 billion. Billion with a B. This is based on an assumption in a consultant’s report that every employee in the country – every single private-sector worker in the entire United States of America – will spend one hour in a meeting related to the new notice.

The real problem with this rule, of course, has nothing to do with the burden of regulation. The NLRB rule would require employers to hang a poster that lets workers know they have a legal right to organize, bargain collectively and not be treated in certain ways by their bosses.

Seemingly every business lobby and anti-union think tank in the country has deployed lobbyists against these posters: The Texas Association for Home Care and Hospice, the Independent Bakers Association, the American Trucking Association, the Council on Labor Law Equality, the Portland Cement Association, the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce …

These organizations have made an incredibly wide-ranging variety of arguments. The poster-hanging requirement infringes on employers’ right to free speech; it exceeds the NLRB’s legal authority; it infringes on religious employers’ right to religious freedom; it will give union thugs an opportunity to tear down the posters and get employers in trouble; it’s a government attempt to entrap and penalize businesses; and on and on.

“Finally,” concludes a summary of complaints, “one comment contends that requiring employers to set aside wall space for posting the notices violates the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

Takings! The coup de grace.

Something the Heritage Foundation does not bring up: It’s possible you won’t ever see this poster at all. The implementation of these rules – like the pollution rules – is on hold, because the U.S. Chamber is mounting a court challenge.

The business groups that tremble over the economic impact of printing and posting a notice are somehow managing to afford legal action.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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