A couple of good things happened on the labor front recently. Granted, thirty-five years ago, neither of these events would have merited more than a casual footnote, let alone be considered “good.” But that was back in 1978, when there was still hope. Considering how toxic and treacherous the labor climate has become in the ensuing thirty-five years—and how rare anything remotely resembling “good news” is—both are worth mentioning.
The Senate finally approved all five NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) nominees. As modest as it seems, this was no small feat. Given all the game-playing, stone-walling and obstructionism that animate the confirmation process, it’s been years since the NLRB has had its full, statutory complement of five Senate-approved members.
Moreover, if the Senate hadn’t confirmed at least one of these nominees before Congress adjourned for summer vacation (incumbent Mark Pearce’s five-year term was set to expire in late August), the Board would’ve been left with only two members, one short of a quorum, meaning it wouldn’t have the authority to function as intended (i.e. to conduct union elections and investigate Unfair Labor Practices, among other things).
Of course, an NLRB that’s unable to function as intended is exactly what the Republican Party prays for. Labor aficionados will never forget what happened in November, 2011, when one of the sorriest individuals ever to sit on the NLRB—Republican shill Brian E. Hayes—threatened to resign from what was then a three-member Board (again, the result of congressional gridlock), rather than let the two Democrats form a majority bloc.
Hayes announced that he would resign his prestigious appointment and deprive the Board of its necessary quorum rather than allow the two, Senate-approved Democrats to have their way. (Well done, Mr. Hayes. Spoken like a true “team player.”) Fortunately, the blowback in response to these asinine remarks (even congressional Republicans cringed in embarrassment) forced him to run away and hide. But the “Hayes gambit” (as it came to be known) is emblematic of the extreme polarization that still exists.
In any event, the five-person Board (originally three members, but expanded to five in 1947, under the Taft-Hartley Act) now consists of three Democrats (Nancy Shiffer, Kent Hirozawa, and Chairman Mark Pearce) and two Republicans (Philip Miscimarra and Harry I. Johnson III).
The respected Ms. Shiffer had previously served as general counsel for both the AFL-CIO and the UAW. She’s a graduate of Michigan State Law School, coincidentally the alma mater of Jimmy Hoffa’s son, James P. Hoffa, president of the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) since 1999. Fun fact: Jimmy’s other kid, a daughter, Barbara, was a judge.
The other bit of “good news” concerns reconciliation. After having broken away from the AFL-CIO eight years ago (along with six other unions, including the Teamsters, Farm Workers and SEIU) to form a labor federation of their own (named “Change to Win,” which, unhappily, sounds like the title of a self-help book), the 1.3 million-member UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) announced that it would be rejoining the House of Labor. All’s well that ends well.
Clearly, there those who see this reconciliation with the AFL-CIO as failure. That’s because there are two schools of thought on break-aways: those who embrace any union that has the courage to set out on its own; and those who place a premium on solidarity, who view break-aways as the kind of self-indulgent showmanship that plays directly into the hands of management. I more or less fall into the latter school.
As frustrating as belonging to a large, bureaucratic union can be, “splintering” rarely works. Corny as it sounds, there is strength in numbers. Splintering didn’t help the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), one of the noblest unions ever conceived. The “Wobblies” were formed in 1905 and, for ideological reasons, split apart in 1908. The split didn’t ruin them. But it didn’t do them any good either.
As a wise man once said, you win a track meet by finding one guy who can jump 7-feet, not seven guys who can jump one-foot.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com