In the Crosshairs

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was a barely-noticed federal agency until recently. Now, it's mentioned in Republican presidential debates and is the object of heated political attacks. Why? The NLRB is in the political crosshairs of many on the right because it enforces workers' rights, and has for more than 75 years. These rights have been under assault in state legislatures, by governors, and now the right has turned its sights on the NLRB.

Governors have authority over state employees, so their efforts to repeal collective-bargaining rights have necessarily focused on teachers, police officers, fire fighters and other state employees. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker forced through the legislature a bill that will make it much harder for public employees to unionize. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has sharply criticized teachers who exercise their right to have a say in the educational process. In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder gave unelected financial "managers" uncontested power to cancel public employee union contracts. Now the attack is expanding to the private sector--and the NLRB.

The NLRB enforces the National Labor Relations Act, which has the stated purpose of encouraging private-sector collective bargaining, protecting employees' right to form a union to improve working conditions and preventing retaliation for exercising these rights. The Act helped the U.S. climb out of the Great Depression and encouraged the growth of a vibrant middle class for much of the last century. It's a law that is needed now more than ever.

This is not the view of Republican governors leading the charge to cut back worker rights, or members of Congress, national trade associations and right wing commentators who have joined them. But because they lack the votes in Congress to change the law, they have focused on dismantling the NLRB's ability to enforce it. In one prominent case, conservatives attacked the NLRB for reminding states seeking to repeal federal labor law that only Congress has the power to change federal law.

This all came to the fore in a recent, prominent case involving Boeing, which threatened to move its operations to a South Carolina plant after strikes in its Washington state plants. The NLRB issued a complaint against Boeing for its actions based on longstanding precedent, and came under blistering attack.

Since then, there has been a preemptive strike on regulations the agency is rumored to be considering even before it has even published the regulation. I don't know what regulation the agency might issue but I do know, as a former General Counsel of the NLRB, that there has long been the need for reforms of agency procedures to better assure the law works as intended. There is broad agreement amongst those who have studied the agency that its procedures and rules need updating to respond to the changing realities of today's workplace. Now that the NLRB is apparently considering how to do that, the rumored rule changes are being challenged.

Gov. Walker, of Wisconsin, initially claimed that the repeal of worker rights was necessary to balance budgets and cut back unnecessary programs. But the tide of public opinion turned against him when people saw that public employee unions were willing to make significant economic concessions and realized the true motivation behind these takeaways was repeal of longstanding worker rights.

Similarly the attacks and intimidation directed at the NLRB is often couched in rhetoric about recovery and markets. But again the goal is undoubtedly to strip workers of longstanding rights. The National Labor Relations Board is just the latest front in this battle.