The National Labor Relations Board, in what could be one of its final acts before it goes dark due to a lack of a quorum, formally approved new rules that would accelerate union elections. Because there may not be a functional NLRB after January 1, however, there will be no immediate practical effect to this change.

The rules, which take effect April 30, simplify procedures and reduce legal delays that can hold up union elections after employees at a work site gather enough signatures to form a union.

“This rule is about giving all employees who have petitioned for an election the right to vote in a timely manner and without the impediment of needless litigation,” board chairman Mark Pearce said.

Unions say the old rules allowed companies to file frivolous appeals, stalling elections for months or years. The new rules could help unions make inroads at businesses like Target and Wal-Mart, which have successfully resisted union organizing for years.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called it a “modest but important step” toward fairness in union elections.

But that step forward is matched by the step backward that would result from not having a working NLRB. Without it, employers will have carte blanche to intimidate union organizers and violate labor laws, without an independent enforcement body available to stop them. The Supreme Court ruled last year that the NLRB cannot issue decisions without at least three board members in place, and after the end of the year, Craig Becker’s recess appointment will expire, leaving them with just two remaining members. The President has nominated two people to fill the Democratic positions on the board, but their chances of confirmation in the Senate are seen as remote. So without a recess appointment, the NLRB goes into hibernation, and this advance on worker’s rights gets frozen in amber.

Trumka closed out his statement on the NLRB action by saying “We hope the Board will quickly move to adopt the rest of its proposed reforms to modernize and streamline the election process.” Don’t we all!