By Kevin Bogardus - 06/10/11 10:00 AM EDT
Democrats and liberal groups are fighting back against criticism of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as they grow worried that the attacks could diminish the labor board’s authority.
The NLRB has seen its officials’ nominations threatened, its funding targeted and its internal documents requested after it filed a complaint against Boeing for allegedly retaliating against union workers earlier this year. The pushback against the labor board by Republicans and business associations, however, has been countered by Democrats, unions and liberal groups that are speaking up to defend the NLRB.
“I think you finally have a board that is interested in protecting workers’ rights and making sure the national labor relations process works,” Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) told The Hill. “If they can’t get rid of the board, they are seeking to intimidate the board, and perhaps even going as so far to tamper with the judicial proceedings as a result of the board’s actions.”
Miller, as ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has spoken out against what he calls “a brazen attempt” to interfere with the labor board’s process. Republicans contend they are conducting routine oversight of the executive branch.
“Congressional hearings are not inherently improper by virtue of exploring a pending administrative matter. To the contrary, it is the appropriate role of Congress and the constitutional duty of this committee to conduct oversight inquiring about the administration of existing laws,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote to NLRB acting general counsel Lafe Solomon in a June 7 letter.
Issa said he might subpoena the labor board lawyer if necessary and asked Solomon to reconsider his invitation to appear at his committee’s June 17 hearing in South Carolina.
South Carolina is ground zero for the labor fight. The NRLB’s complaint, which Solomon helped write, cited statements from Boeing executives where they said they were moving a second production line for the 787 Dreamliner jet to South Carolina due to fears of work stoppages at unionized plants in Washington state.
Like Miller, others have rallied around the labor board.
“The NLRB has become the new battleground for the attacks against working people as lawmakers go after the agencies and the officials meant to protect them,” said Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of American Rights at Work. “I would anticipate that opponents of this board will continue to attack the future decisions of this board.”
Unions say they are worried about attacks on the labor board.
“It seems to be an unprecedented effort by members of Congress to influence the mandated enforcement process of an independent agency,” said Nancy Schiffer, associate general counsel for the AFL-CIO. “You don’t do this through the media or have prosecutors influenced by elected politicians.”
On a conference call Thursday organized by the American Constitution Society, a liberal-leaning legal think tank, law experts said the labor board was acting as an independent agency performing a legal action and should be left alone.
“When agencies are attempting to address judicatory disputes, they are acting similarly to judges, and they should be insulated from extreme political pressures that might influence or appear to influence their decisions and undermine our basic notions of fairness or due process to the parties,” said James Brudney, an Ohio State University law professor.
Brudney, who was chief counsel and staff director of the Senate Labor subcommittee under the late Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), said there is a limit to congressional oversight when it comes to pending agency decisions that GOP lawmakers are not considering.
“In the Boeing case, Republican members of both the House and the Senate, including some in leadership positions, have engaged in a series of activities or conduct that one rarely if ever encounters during a pending agency judicatory proceeding,” Brudney said.
In letters to the labor board, several Republicans on committees in the House and Senate have peppered officials with requests for documents and threatened to block the Solomon’s nomination.
In turn, Democrats on Capitol Hill have performed a rearguard action, often writing their own letters to the labor board or colleagues on Capitol Hill in response to the GOP missives.
In a May 13 letter, Miller asked committee Republicans to suspend their request for internal documents for a pending case before the labor board. Further, Senate Democrats on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee told Solomon in a May 19 letter to ignore political pressure when considering the Boeing complaint, in response to a letter sent by committee Republicans earlier that month.
“I think what you see from the Labor Committee and from the Government Oversight Committee is an effort to intimidate the National Labor Relations Board prior to that hearing,” Miller said.
The hearing Miller is referring to is the June 14 session before an administrative law judge for the NLRB’s complaint against Boeing in Seattle. That will decide what happens next in the case.
Other pending cases are likely to grab the same kind of scrutiny from Republicans once they are decided. For example, GOP lawmakers have already expressed concerns about one case known as Specialty Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center of Mobile and the United Steelworkers. They worry the case could have a profound effect on labor law, allowing unions to organize in mini-bargaining units.
“Anything that the board does at this point is going to have heightened visibility and attention,” Freeman Brown said. “In a race-to-the-bottom economy when workers are this vulnerable, workers need an agency to enforce the labor law that we have on the books.”