The National Labor Relations Board’s willingness to let smaller groups of people form “micro unions” has many operators on edge.

The first proverbial shot over the bow was fired in 2011. That’s when the NLRB voted 3-1 to let just nursing assistants organize at Specialty Healthcare, in Mobile, AL. Earlier this week, the labor board’s Chicago arm gave a similar option to selected employees at the Rush University Medical Center.

Industry groups — including senior living operators — are concerned that such drilling down could create havoc. At the very least, it will apparently force providers and others to bargain with multiple unions at the same location.

Jim Plunkett, director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says that by allowing micro unions, the NLRB is letting unions gerrymander elections.

“Unions are allowed to cherry pick the employees in the workplace that they know will be supportive,” he said.

The introduction of micro unions also would appear to raise the issue of what options will remain in play for other employees. It would seem they could opt to form their own separate union, or not join a union at all. Or perhaps even join more than one. Regardless, collective bargaining as we’ve known it is likely to change.

For their part, labor unions insist micro unions can help make working conditions fairer for workers.

“In most workplaces, business owners have figured out ways to hijack the collective bargaining process,” said Keith Wrightson, a spokesman for Public Citizen. 

Like many hammer-and-tong disputes, this one may have a courtroom decision in its future. Recently, Sen. Johnny Isakson  (R-GA) again introduced his Representation Fairness Restoration Act, which would outlaw micro unions.

“When the National Labor Relations Board decided to allow micro unions, they tipped the scales dramatically in favor of unions and neglected 77 years’ worth of precedent in collective bargaining,” Isakson said.

It remains to be seen what micro unions will ultimately do to companies and workers. What we can say with full certainty, however, is that they will surely be a boon for labor lawyers.