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Sen. Harkin: Republican attacks on workers’ rights won’t create jobs

With working families struggling to make ends meet and Americans taking to the streets to protest the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, it is long past time for Congress to start coming up with real solutions that will create jobs and rebuild a strong American middle class. Unfortunately, it seems that congressional Republicans are still more interested in playing political games than coming up with solutions. Instead of joining with Democrats to work on job-creation proposals that Americans overwhelmingly support, Republicans are trying to convince Americans that the National Labor Relations Board — a small federal agency charged with defending workers’ rights — is somehow responsible for our nation’s economic woes.

The time and attention that House Republicans have devoted to their attack campaign against the NLRB is nothing short of astonishing. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce has held no fewer than five hearings this year specifically addressing the NLRB, but has not held a single hearing addressing any specific proposal to create jobs. The House refuses to take up the president’s jobs bill but is moving quickly ahead with legislation that would undermine the mission of the board — passing a bill that would make it easier for employers to retaliate against workers and moving a second bill that makes it harder for workers who want a union to hold an election and join one. 

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Republican elected officials have gone after this small federal agency guns a-blazing — attacking its funding, refusing to confirm nominees, threatening the professional credentials and livelihoods of nonpartisan career employees, and even taking the unprecedented step of calling on Republican Board Member Brian Hayes to abandon the duties he swore to uphold and resign in a blatant political move to incapacitate the agency altogether.

As the chairman of the Senate committee with oversight jurisdiction over the National Labor Relations Board and the subcommittee that considers its funding, I have great respect for the National Labor Relations Board and the important work that it does. In this difficult economy it is more important than ever to ensure that workers’ legal rights are protected and that working families have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives and their livelihoods, a principle that voters in Ohio resoundingly reaffirmed last week.

That’s why I am mystified by the suggestion that gutting the NLRB would somehow revive our economy. In survey after survey, business leaders agree about what’s hurting our economy — it’s not government, it’s not regulation and it’s not the NLRB. It’s lack of consumer demand. Workers do not have enough money in their paychecks to buy things, and the economy won’t pick up until they do. Weakening workers’ rights and taking away their ability to speak up for fair treatment will only make this problem worse.

Attacking American workers and the agency that protects them is a poor substitute for a real job-creation strategy. Americans know that National Labor Relations Board is not responsible for our country’s economic woes. Incapacitating this agency will not put food on people’s tables, help them keep their homes, find jobs, or send their children to college. 

It will, however, send a strong message to those few, unscrupulous employers who want to take advantage of this bad economy to mistreat hardworking people — without the NLRB there is no watchdog, so it’s open season on workers’ rights. At a time when decent jobs with good wages and fair treatment are getting harder and harder to find, this would be a step in the wrong direction for our country.

The National Labor Relations Board is an independent federal agency charged with an important mission. In fulfilling that mission, the hardworking people at the Board are just doing their jobs. Now it’s time for the House of Representatives to do the same. Instead of continuing to pursue this pointless and distracting political crusade, it’s time for the House to get down to the hard work of rebuilding the middle class and moving America forward.

Harkin is chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.