This week, an important committee vote will take place in the U.S. Senate. Senate Republicans have long been filibustering President Obama’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board. As you probably know, the NLRB is a powerful federal agency that oversees elections for labor union representation and makes decisions regarding the unfair labor practice cases that are brought before it. Since its formation in 1934, it has been the single American institution that is most responsible for protecting crucial labor rights. Employees, for example, have the right to organize a union and engage in pro-union activities without suffering discriminatory treatment or retaliation from an employer. Just as importantly, employers are legally required to bargain with the union.
Presidents choose the members of the NLRB, and very rarely have any appointees met serious opposition. But since the right-wing war on labor, and on President Obama, continues to rage, Senate Republicans have for years now been filibustering Obama’s slate of appointees. Obama, in response, made a recess appointment of three people to the NLRB about a year and a half ago. Recess appointments of this nature are common, but earlier this year, G.O.P -appointed judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down those appointments. This week, a brand new Appeals Court decision reaffirmed the original ruling, albeit for different legal reasons.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee met for a hearing on Obama’s five NLRB appointees (a compromise slate composed of three Democrats and two Republicans). Next week, the Committee will vote on whether to send the nominations to the Senate floor. Since it’s a majority Democratic committee, that seems likely to happen. What is far from clear is whether the full Senate will have an up-or-down vote on the nominees. A Republican filibuster may well prevent such a vote from ever happening.
Let’s not put too fine a point on it: a successful filibuster would spell disaster for organized labor. Assuming that the Appeals Courts’ rulings on the alleged unconstitutionality of President Obama’s recess appointments are upheld (and they probably will be, given that we have a very right-wing, majority Republican Supreme Court), the NLRB will be, by late August, left without a quorum of voting members and will be unable to issue rulings on new cases. Employers would then have license to do pretty much whatever they want, so far as organized labor is concerned. As ThinkProgress’s Ian Millhiser reports, without a functioning NLRB
it may be possible for an employer to round up all of their pro-union workers, fire them, and then replace them with anti-union scabs who will immediately call a vote to decertify the union.
Alternatively, the employer could simply refuse to fulfill its legal duty to bargain with the union — after all, who is going to enforce the law? It’s even possible that hundreds of previous NLRB decisions could be invalidated.
Even now, Republican intransigence has led to a huge backlog of cases at the NLRB. In These Times’ David Moberg recently interviewed one of the many victims of the G.O.P. war on the NLRB. In 2010, Marcus Hedger, a veteran printing pressman, was fired by his employer, an Illinois company named Fort Dearborn, apparently because of his pro-union activities. He found another job, but he’s only making one-third of what he made at Fort Dearborn — and he’s had his house foreclosed. If the NLRB decided in his favor, he’d get his job back, plus back pay.
As Moberg points out, corporate America has been hating on the NLRB for nearly 80 years now. But as AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka observed earlier this week, the current campaign against the NLRB has reached “crisis” proportions. In workers’ hands, the labor law protections that the NLRB enforces have always been a weak tool; still, it’s one of the few tools workers have. Take it away, and the balance of power between labor and management becomes even more grotesquely lopsided. Given the latest news about soaring economic inequality, that’s the last thing workers need — especially in this bleak economy.