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Sunday, April 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Distinctive politics set labor-board member apart

Newhouse News Service

It cannot be said of Peter Kirsanow that he makes a quiet entrance. There's the imposing smooth pate, handlebar mustache and physical fitness earned from an exercise routine that would make most grown men quake.

But it's distinctive politics rather than distinctive looks that have thrust Kirsanow into national view. The black Republican attorney and member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission opposes affirmative-action programs as "loserhood" for blacks.

He backs school choice and private retirement accounts on the grounds that black men are cheated by Social Security because their life expectancy is shorter than that of whites. He says Ronald Reagan deserves a spot on Mount Rushmore for his transcendent achievements.

If the fragility of the South Dakota monument prevents adding another president, he says, the carving could go on Yosemite National Park's Half Dome. Such views helped ignite a battle royal when President Bush appointed Kirsanow to the Civil Rights Commission in 2002.

He was seated only after a federal appeals court ruled his appointment was valid. Now Bush has selected Kirsanow, 52, for another polarizing government body.

In January, Bush recess-appointed him to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees union elections and works to prevent and remedy unfair labor practices. Labor lawyers had tried mightily to derail his nomination.

The Cleveland native says his work on the board will be guided not by partisanship but by a determination to seek the right result, as dictated by government precedent, applicable law and the facts.

Kirsanow, one of the most prominent blacks in the administration, says he'll keep his job on the commission, too, making him "like James Brown, the hardest-working man in show business."

Q: What are the most important cases that the board will consider this year?

A: There are cases related to the definition of a supervisor. There are cases related to the rights of salts (union organizers who get jobs at work sites to recruit new members) and the obligations, duties and rights of employers related to salts.

Q: What other workplace issues, whether before the board or not, do you see gaining prominence in the near term?

A: There are a lot of meta-issues. One is that global competition affects jobs, wages and terms and conditions of employment. It requires both employers and labor organizations, as well as employees, to be much more flexible. Another is the implication of technology in terms of bargaining, organizational activity and the structure of the workplace. Employees now have access to the Internet and e-mail, and that could potentially change the definition of a confidential employee, one who may, for example, have access to labor-relations material and as a result would be excluded from the bargaining unit.

Q: Attorneys complain that there are fully briefed cases that have been sitting at the NLRB for two years or three years. Is that valid?

A: The board is making a Herculean effort to dispose of those cases. Chairman (Robert) Battista has been working extraordinarily hard to make sure we issue decisions in a timely fashion. The backlog was out of control.

Q: Are unions anachronistic?

A: Absolutely not. It may even become more necessary to have unions in 2006 than it was, say, 20 years ago, because we have so many issues that have been raised by changes in the workplace caused by global competition and technology. Unions are possibly best suited for ... mediating the impact of those changes between employees and employers.

Q: You're more optimistic about unions than a lot of union people.

A: I know that. I think that the reality is that yes, there's some problems there, and there have been for a while. But I think the Change to Win coalition is an example of seizing opportunities.

The various agencies that have been created to protect the rights of employees have, to some extent, made certain aspects of what unions do superfluous. But my view is that I think that unions have probably reached bottom in terms of how low they could possibly go. I think there is significant room for expansion at this point.

Q: You have been described as an ardent opponent of minimum-wage laws and prevailing-wage laws. What is your thinking on them?

A: I am not an opponent of minimum-wage laws (but) tying the minimum wage to an index such as the cost of living or inflation would be a bad idea. There have been a number of studies that show that when you have fairly sizable spikes in the minimum wage, there's a considerable amount of labor-force dislocation at the lower end of the wage scale.

Prevailing wage, I took the side about 10 years ago that I had a problem with the origin of the Davis-Bacon Act. It had been enacted to make sure that poor Southern blacks didn't supplant the white labor force in the North. It has a residual effect of making it more difficult for small black companies to compete on projects that are prevailing-wage projects.

Q: You have made frequent appearances before Congress testifying on various matters over the years. Do you have a yen for political office?

A: No, not at all. And I'll just leave it at that. I don't for a million different reasons. No, I'm here to be on the National Labor Relations Board and the Civil Rights Commission, and after that I intend to practice law.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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