President Obama’s nomination of two labor union activists—attorneys Craig Becker and Mark Pearce—to the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) was greeted by two wildly divergent but predictable reactions. On the one side, organized labor was, as expected, more or less ecstatic. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said of the appointments, “Finally, a decisive move in the right direction.”
On the other side was the shrill, hysterical voice of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—labor’s arch-enemy and most effective opponent. The Chamber’s spokesman, Steven Law, referred to the choices as “alarming,” and called upon the U.S. Senate to thoroughly vet these two potentially dangerous men before even considering confirmation.
You can bet the Chamber is already busily at work spending money and bending people’s ears to that purpose. It is estimated that the Chamber of Commerce spent, literally, tens of millions of dollars in its lobbying effort to defeat the EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act), which, had it been enacted, would have expanded card check privileges to employees seeking union representation. Fortunately, killing a controversial labor law is one thing, but torpedoing a Board appointment is another.
Craig Becker was associate general counsel to the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), and Mark Pearce was a founding partner of a law firm specializing in pro-union law. Although the SEIU is one of the most powerful and aggressive labor unions in the country, union politics being what they are, SEIU president Andrew Stern has been portrayed as either a wild-eyed labor radical or an insecure and egomaniacal corporate lackey, depending on who you talk to. Still, no one can deny the SEIU is one of the few American unions continuing to grow.
Becker and Pearce will be joining NLRB chairman Wilma Liebman (a Clinton appointee and former legal counsel to the Teamsters), an experienced Board member and acknowledged pro-worker advocate. If Becker and Pearce are confirmed—which, despite the Chamber’s efforts, is fairly likely, given that Democrats control the senate—this trio could mark a turning point in American labor relations.
If not a turning point, then certainly a dramatic improvement. George W. Bush’s NLRB chairman was Robert Batista, a hope-to-die, anti-union zealot credited with attempting to drive a dagger into organized labor’s heart by ruling that “charge nurses” (nurses who act as “leads” in hospitals and nursing homes) are in fact “supervisory personnel” and, therefore, not eligible to join a union. [see the Kentucky River decision]
Despite not having the authority of an actual boss (i.e., the power to hire, fire or discipline, to alter seniority, to adjust wages or hours of work), Batista’s NLRB nonetheless assigned these nurses management status. As a result, millions of workers (not just in the health care field, but in “lead” jobs across the board) were euchred out of the opportunity to join a union. It was a naked attempt to limit the organizing capabilities of labor, and it worked.
The NLRB was established 74 years ago as part of the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act), commonly known as the Wagner Act, and was designed, as part of the New Deal, to oversee labor relations between America’s businesses and its workers.
Unfortunately, over the years the NLRB has been systematically squeezed and intimidated by corporate interests to the point where the Board rarely renders any decision that could stand alone as unequivocally “pro-labor.” In short, the NLRB has forgotten what its mission was. Hopefully, Obama’s new team will restore its memory.
The country doesn’t need new labor laws in order to achieve a proper balance. Indeed, it doesn’t need a slew of new labor laws any more than the financial industry needs a truckload of new banking regulations. What it needs is a re-dedication on the part of its regulators—a re-commitment to the job they were assigned to do.
Taking the banks as an analogy, just consider how easily the recent financial melt-down could have been averted if the people responsible for overseeing the process had simply done their job; if the regulators and watchdogs—the civil servant employees of the SEC, FICA, et al, from top to bottom—had been diligent and sharp-eyed in monitoring the system rather than complicit in the gaming of it.
The same applies to the NLRB. If the Liebman-Becker-Pearce crew comes into this thing full of piss and vinegar, with the attitude that there’s a new sheriff in town and that this sheriff is going to reverse recent history by adopting a “Workers First” mentality, thereby putting the fear of God into the heart of Corporate America, it could transform the labor landscape of the country.
The NLRB can do this by closing loopholes, taking the workers’ side in disputes (until proven otherwise), giving field agents greater access to job sites, and demonstrating to management that they’re not afraid to prosecute for violations of the hundreds of labor statutes already on the books.
We don’t need new laws to get the job done. What we need is to instill a new attitude in our designated watchdogs. Turn those dogs loose with orders to bite.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Americana”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org