Crisis at the NLRB

Most people in America don’t know what the National Labor Relations Board is. Well, why should they? Here’s why.


For decades, American labor law helped working people come together to have a voice on the job, which in turn gave them a say in our economy and in politics and public life.  This freedom to organize, which is enshrined in the National Labor Relations Act (and, by the way, in the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights), helped produce the greatest period of sustained and broad prosperity in our country’s history. 

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Everyone did better. 

Broadly shared prosperity is needed once again. In order to rebuild our economy and level the playing field for all working people — union and non-union — the law protecting workers’ rights must be enforced. That’s the role of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — and it needs to work. 

That doesn’t mean protecting the rights of working people as opposed to the rights of employers. It means ensuring the NLRB’s ability to promote commerce by governing the relationship between workers and employers. 

The less the board works, the more America’s economy falls out of whack, as we see today with record inequality and a shrinking middle class. 

But currently the NLRB is under unprecedented attack by extremist congressional Republicans and corporate lobbyists who want to weaken its power to protect workers who choose to organize and form unions on the job. 

While this issue may not grace the front page of every newspaper, the effects are and will continue to be felt across the nation.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a key leader of the charge, said, “I will continue to block all nominations to the NLRB. ... The NLRB as inoperable could be considered progress.”

In the face of such threats of partisan obstruction to shut down the NLRB, President Obama made three recess appointments to the board. The recess appointments were not without considerable precedent, having been exercised by Democratic and Republican presidents 29 times since 1977.

But in a radical decision, a conservative three-judge panel from the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in the Noel Canning vs. NLRB case that the president’s nominees were unconstitutional. The decision totally ignores the power of the president to make recess appointments for positions that get bogged down in political infighting  

To make matters worse, House Republicans are pushing legislation to further cripple the board. Their so-called Preventing Greater Uncertainty in Labor-Management Relations Act (H.R. 1120), despite its name, would create more uncertainty and deprive workers of enforceable rights.

These attacks are causing real consequences in real people’s lives.

Marcus Hedger is just one of the many workers who has been denied justice because of the attack on the NLRB. He was the chief steward for the union at Fort Dearborn Co. After the union rejected a company proposal, Marcus was fired and told the company was tired of the “union circus.” The NLRB ruled that the firing was illegal and ordered the company to rehire Marcus, but the company has refused because of the Noel Canning decision. Marcus recently lost his home to foreclosure because of the financial distress he faced after being unlawfully fired.

Marcus is hardly alone. Four years ago, Visions of Elk River, a Minnesota school busing company, illegally fired two drivers and three aides who accompany special needs children for trying to form a union. The firings were motivated by employees’ known involvement in past union activity. Let me be clear: Without a functioning NLRB, these people were fired — not for doing something wrong, but for doing something that’s protected by law, by openly talking about forming a union or bargaining for a better life. And yet their lives have been thrown into turmoil, and they have no effective recourse. 

Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice to working people is being seriously denied because of the Noel Canning case. 

The U.S. Supreme Court should overturn Noel Canning, but working people can’t wait. Obama has taken an important step toward restoring stability to our system of labor-management relations by nominating a full, bipartisan package of nominees to the NLRB.

Responsibility for providing needed stability and the functioning NLRB that working people need and deserve is now up to the Senate. Members should act quickly and confirm the president’s full slate of nominees.

The strength of our economy depends on it. 

Trumka is president of the 12 million-member AFL-CIO.