Why the labor board matters

As former chairwoman of the House Workforce Protections subcommittee, I have listened to witnesses, read through cases and heard compelling personal stories that lead to a simple conclusion: the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) matters for working Americans. As a result, the upcoming U.S. Senate battle to confirm the full slate of five NLRB nominees is of major consequence.

For more than 75 years, the NLRB has been made up of both Democratic and Republican members who help ensure fairness at the American workplace. The board is the basic protector of more than 100 million private-sector employees’ rights, including freedom of speech and the opportunity to organize and negotiate.

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Later this summer, the Senate will likely take up the slate of President Obama’s five qualified NLRB nominees, which include two rock-ribbed Republicans. If the Senate fails to live up to its “advise and consent” duties and does not advance the full slate of nominees before Aug. 27, the NLRB will be left without the necessary quorum of at least three members that is required for the board to function. Of course, this is by Republican design, aided by Democratic unwillingness thus far to do everything in their power to have a functional U.S. Senate. 

It’s no secret that most Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce don’t like American labor law protections. Yet what is underappreciated is the lengths to which the GOP has gone to undermine the sole avenue the majority of American workers have to pursue workplace justice — the NLRB. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, said in 2011, “the 

NLRB as inoperable could be considered progress.” 

After Senate Republicans blocked NLRB nominees from advancing in the Senate in 2011, the president made three January 2012 recess appointments to keep the board functional. However, Republican-appointed judges on the D.C. Circuit ruled that these appointments were unconstitutional, insisting that the board nominees would have to be approved by the Senate. Yet this Senate approval has been nearly impossible, thanks to Republicans like Graham, who have blocked NLRB nominations from advancing. 

The combination of the judicial ruling and the Senate’s unwillingness to confirm nominees has created chaos for American labor law, placed basic worker protections at risk and is being used by anti-labor law firms to claim that NLRB actions are illegitimate. 

Things would be even worse if we reach late August without an NLRB quorum. Workers who have been illegally fired would have no recourse. Union elections would be inconsequential and could be disregarded. Those in pursuit of basic justice would have nowhere to turn to report unfair labor practice violations. Even workers’ ability to complain about their boss on Facebook without fear of firing would be stripped.

The only way out of this uncertainty is to have a functional and fully Senate-confirmed NLRB. Failure to confirm the full slate would be a failure of basic governance that, quite simply, cannot happen. If Republican insistence about derailing the NLRB remains intact, Senate Democrats should follow through on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) threats to reform Senate rules in July.

The U.S. Senate should do its job so the NLRB can do its job. The livelihoods of working Americans hang in the balance. 

Woolsey served in the House of Representatives for 20 years and is a past chairwoman of the Committee on Education and Labor’s Workforce Protections subcommittee. She is currently the national president of Americans for Democratic Action.


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