Five For the NLRB: A Win For Workers

Terrance Heath

The Senate didn’t quite go nuclear, but it came as close as it has in a long time. Close enough, in fact, to break through some Republican obstruction of presidential nominees, and fill some important vacancies. The filibuster-ending deal Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid struck with Republicans on Tuesday isn’t perfect, and the fight over the filibuster is a long way from over. But it means that the National Labor Relations Board will finally have enough members to go on fulfilling its mission. That’s a big win for American workers.

Politico reports that the NRLB was at the center of the filibuster fight.

The wider debate over lowering the vote threshold for executive branch nominees from 60 votes to 51 votes involved seven of President Barack Obama’s nominees, including those to the Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. But once senators got into serious negotiations, the true sticking point was revealed: a pair of NLRB members who were appointed by Obama during recess.

Republicans and lower courts have called the appointments of Sharon Block and Richard Griffin unconstitutional and illegal; the Supreme Court is set to consider the legality of the appointments this fall. But until then, there was no way the GOP was going to settle for Senate approval of nominees they believe were legally dubious, forcing Democrats to back off their fierce opposition to pulling the plug on Block and Griffin’s confirmation.

In return, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed, for now, not to pursue the nuclear option of changing Senate rules by a majority vote, and in turn, several Republicans joined Democrats to confirm Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Tuesday.

Obstructing presidential nominees has become Senate Republicans’ favorite tactic for shrinking government by making sure there’s no one there to run it, and to keep agencies that Republicans despise too understaffed to fulfill their missions. At the top of that list, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was the National Labor Relations Board.
The NRLB’s mission is to “safeguard employees’ rights to organize and to determine whether to have unions as their bargaining representative,” and to “prevent and remedy unfair labor practices committed by private sector employers and unions.” The NRLB fulfills this mission in a number of ways.
  • providing the legal framework for public sector workers to conduct elections and form collective bargaining units,
  • investigating unfair labor practices and violations of the National Labor Relations Act,
  • facilitating settlements between employees and employers,
  • deciding cases and adjudicating conflicts between workers and employers,
  • enforcing agency orders via the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The NRLB can’t do any of this without a full quorum of five members. That’s been just fine with Republicans, who are ideologically opposed to the agency’s mission — from helping workers build collective bargaining units, to investigating unfair labor practices, and holding employers accountable. That’s why Republicans have kept the agency from functioning by blocking President Obama’s nominees, and even going to court to reverse the president’s recess appointments, which were intended to allow the NRLB to get to work protecting the rights of 80 million Americans.

Since January 2012, obstructionism had kept the NRLB in limbo. The NRLB has made hundreds of decisions since the recess appointments, and the court decisions declaring those appointment unconstitutional gave employers an opening to take advantage of the resulting uncertainty to block workers’ effort to form unions or collective bargaining units, and retaliate against employees who lead efforts to unionize.

With the approval of Richard Cordray to head the CFPB and the NRLB on its way to getting its quorum, American workers and consumers may finally get some help from Washington. That’s a win for American workers everywhere.

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