Obama must act boldly to protect workers' rights

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Second, last Friday the D.C. Circuit Court, rarely a friend of workers, ruled in Noel Canning vs. NLRB that President Obama’s January 2912 recess appointments to the labor board are invalid. Senate Republicans had tried to block the recess appointments by holding pro-forma sessions, and had vowed to filibuster his Democratic nominations to the NLRB. With the backing of the Justice Department, Obama made 3 appointments – 2 Democrats and 1 Republican – to ensure the board had a quorum. But in a sweeping judgment that casts doubt on nine decades of recess appointments, the D.C. Circuit ruled that he had exceeded his constitutional authority and ignored the Senate’s “advise and consent” role.

For now, the NLRB will continue to carry out its statutory functions, but it is likely that the D.C. Circuit will void its decisions. The administration, which “strongly” opposes the unprecedented ruling, will fight the case, but may wait until several recess cases before other federal courts are decided. The Supreme Court will almost certainly make the final decision, thereby determining the fate of every board decision since January 2012.

Predictably, the GOP Congress, which has done its utmost to prevent the NLRB from enforcing the law, welcomed the decision. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized the board for imposing “excessive regulations” and “telling businesses where they can and cannot create jobs.” Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) attacked it for creating “uncertainty” among “job creators.” And House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) stated that the board must cease all activity in order to “avoid further damage to the economy.”  For Republicans, this is – and has always been -- primarily about stopping the labor board from protecting workers’ rights, not about the legitimacy of three recess appointments.

So what can President Obama do to help labor’s cause? The president will rightly go down in history for preventing the country plunging into a second great depression, overhauling an unjust and inefficient healthcare system, and enacting regulations to avoid a recurrence of the worst Wall Street abuses. He may win comprehensive immigration reform, limited gun control measures and climate change legislation. But unless he acts boldly on workers’ rights, he risks also going down in history as the Democratic president who stood by while conservatives dealt a deathblow to the American labor movement.

Overcoming GOP obstructionism will not be easy, but there’s much that the president can do. He could start by using the bully pulpit of his office to demand that powerful corporations provide living wages and decent benefits to workers in retail, fast food, and hospitality. He could, for example, restate his support for the struggle of 1.4 million Walmart workers for better pay, increased hours and respect on the job.

The president could insist that foreign multinationals such as Nissan, Deutsche Telekom (which owns T-Mobile), National Express Group (Durham School Services) and IKEA respect workers’ rights in the United States, just as they do in Europe and Japan. Why should Nissan workers be free to form a union in Japan but face management intimidation in Mississippi? And he needs to denounce draconian anti-union legislation, not just in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana, but also in dozens of other states across the nation.

Finally, regardless of the ultimate fate of the recess appointments, he must stand firmly behind the NLRB’s attempts to restore balance to our labor policy. He could start by saying that just as it is unacceptable for Americans to wait for hours to vote, it is equally unacceptable that they be subjected to relentless anti-union intimidation when voting at work.

The stakes could not be higher. President Obama must not go down in history as the president who could have saved workers’ right to form a union, but did not.


Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.