budget for the National Labor Relations Board for fiscal year 2022
was $274 million, which might sound like a lot of money. But it is
the same amount as the Board’s budget for Trump-era fiscal
years 2021 and 2020, and that is a problem.
fact, the NLRB has not had an increase in funding since 2014, the
year that the Republicans took control of Congress during the Obama
administration and reignited their decades-old campaign to deep-six
workers’ rights to unionize.
increase “means a cut to the agency’s funds, due to
inflation and other factors,” explains Burt Pearlstone,
president of the NLRBU, the union representing workers at the agency.
Biden administration had sought a 10 percent funding increase for the
NLRB this year. But Republicans dug in to oppose an increase,
claiming the cost was too high. Privately many were simply doing the
bidding of their corporate backers to further weaken an agency
already in trouble. When the overall budget was finally passed in
March, the administration had accepted flat funding.
OUT, ON PURPOSE
goal of the Trump administration, and the Republican Party generally,
has been to decimate what they refer to as the “administrative
state.” During the Trump years, agency heads were appointed to
hollow out federal agencies from within. At the NLRB, Trump named
Peter Robb, a management lawyer famous for breaking the strike of air
traffic controllers under Reagan, as General Counsel.
set out to weaken the agency by overturning pro-union case law and
reducing agency staff, but many of his initiatives were stymied.
law at the Board changes slowly. Before a General Counsel can put
into place changes that he or she seeks, the right case must be filed
with the agency; the case must be tried before an Administrative Law
Judge (ALJ) and then the Board in Washington, D.C.
of Robb’s initiatives were stopped by ALJs; for others, he did
not find the appropriate case. Had Trump won a second term and Robb
stayed in power, the story would be quite different.
Robb was able to do significant damage to the agency. During his
reign, jobs were left vacant across the country. There is always a
certain amount of turnover, as staff move on to other jobs; those
jobs were not backfilled during Robb’s tenure. In 2018 he
offered buyouts, enticing additional staff to leave, and those jobs
also were not backfilled.
NLRB even failed to spend its budget in 2018 and 2019, prompting an
investigation by the Board’s Inspector General. Underspending
violates the laws establishing Congress’s spending authority
(as does overspending).
the NLRB Regions lost people, the workload increased significantly
for those still working at the agency. In 2021, when President Biden
took office, there already was a significant backlog of trials
waiting to be scheduled. Those that were scheduled took longer and
longer to get before an ALJ.
his credit, Biden took the unprecedented action of firing Robb on his
first day in office. Shortly after, he appointed Jennifer Abruzzo as
the agency’s General Counsel.
had worked at the NLRB in various capacities, including as Assistant
General Counsel, for 23 years. When Trump appointees took over the
agency, she left and went to work for the Communications Workers
knows the agency inside and out. She wants to enforce the original
intent of the National Labor Relations Act: to level the playing
field between workers and employers, and to protect the rights of
working people collectively seeking to better their lives.
immediately, Abruzzo issued memos alerting the agency of cases and
practices she would like to see revisited and revised. She called for
reinstating the Joy
Silk standard (where the Board would require an employer
to recognize the union once a majority of workers had signed union
authorization cards), increasing penalties on law-breaking employers,
declaring mandatory anti-union meetings unlawful, and other
pro-worker initiatives. The labor movement took notice.
also appointed two union-side labor lawyers to fill existing
vacancies on the five-person Board: Gwynne Wilcox and David Prouty.
The majority of Board members are now Democratic appointees. Both
Wilcox and Prouty have fought in the trenches for years on behalf of
workers and unions and understand how NLRB case law and procedures
can be used to help workers or to hinder them.
new appointments to the Board and the new General Counsel are
exciting news—and not a moment too soon. Union organizing is
way up. Workers across the country are taking on big corporations
like Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s, as well as seeking to
unionize in unexpected places—comics, gaming, tech.
at the NLRB for union elections from October 2021 to March 2022 were
up 57 percent compared to the same period a year earlier. In
response, employer lawbreaking is increasing. Unfair labor practice
charges against employers are up 14 percent for the same period.
the pieces are in place for positive developments at the NLRB, except
for one thing—there are fewer people to do the work.
Republican attack on the agency, accelerated under Robb, is being
felt now. Between 2012 and 2022, the field staff at the agency was
reduced by more than 40 percent.
staff are the lawyers and examiners who handle union elections,
investigate cases, and prosecute unfair labor practices, as well as
the administrative professionals who support this work. At the
Brooklyn Region, which ran the elections in Staten Island at Amazon,
the staff is down 40 percent since 2012.
now takes longer. Delay favors the employer. Workers begin to feel
that they can’t win and give up or move on.
is Amazon’s goal in Staten Island. The company filed 25
objections to the election at the JFK8 warehouse. Along with claiming
objectionable behavior by the Amazon Labor Union, Amazon alleges that
the Brooklyn Region of the NLRB delayed the investigation of unfair
labor practice charges, instead of dismissing them, creating the
impression that Amazon violated the law affecting the vote.
though the Brooklyn Region received assistance from field staff at
other Regions to help with the Staten Island vote, Amazon claims that
the agency mishandled the election by providing insufficient staff
for the election. Thus, Amazon is claiming that the underfunding of
the agency is cause for overturning the vote.
claims of violations on the part of the Brooklyn Region also caused
the hearing to be moved to the Region in Phoenix, Arizona, to avoid a
conflict of interest. This, too, created delay. The hearing in
Phoenix did not begin until June 13, months after the actual vote.
objections hearing alone may take months, and then there will be many
more months before the briefs are filed and a decision rendered.
Other legal delaying tactics will follow.
things out is Amazon’s goal; understaffing aids that goal.
if the agency adds staff to resolve issues at Amazon (which it has
done), fewer field staffers are available to handle the increased
caseload involving workers and unions at other companies.
at the Brooklyn Region feel overwhelmed by the workload. Many have
begun talking about leaving. The Brooklyn chapter of the NLRBU has
met with Abruzzo seeking relief.
is not the only Region feeling overwhelmed by the workload,”
says Pearlstone. He hears this from workers at NLRB Regions across
the country. “The only solution is more money to hire more
MUST FIX THIS
Biden claims to be pro-worker and pro-union. He has supported the PRO
Act, recommended greater worker rights in the federal government,
issued a pro-worker message to employees at Amazon’s Alabama
warehouse, and jubilantly told Amazon “Here we come!”
after the first union win in Staten Island. And he has nominated a
General Counsel and new Board members that care about enforcing the
National Labor Relations Act.
without sufficient funding for the NLRB, all of Biden’s
statements could end up being little more than hollow promises.
and labor activists need to demand that the Biden administration find
additional resources for the NLRB now. Adequate funding for the
agency has got to be a major issue for the labor movement—or
else the wave of new organizing that has ignited our imaginations and
revived an understanding of the importance of labor may wither away.
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