Members of the Communications Workers of America rally outside Verizon’s offices in Philadelphia, August 2012. (AP Photo/ Joseph Kaczmarek)
After collective action cost twenty-two cable workers their jobs, their union is charging that a DC Circuit Appeals Court ruling has emboldened employers to break the law.
George Kohl, a senior director for the Communications Workers of America, compared the DC ruling—which threw out a National Labor Relations Board decision on the grounds that its members were illegitimately appointed—to the 1981 mass firing of striking air traffic controllers: “I think that it’s a symbolic action like Reagan’s breaking the PATCO strike.”
Kohl’s union represents just under 300 workers employed by the New York City cable giant Cablevision, who won union recognition in a January 2012 vote, following a bitterly contested campaign (another group of Cablevision workers, in the Bronx, voted down unionization in a 3-1 vote last June). Thirteen months later, the workers are still without a union contract. Hostilities heightened between Cablevision and CWA a month ago, when the company terminated twenty-two union activists. Kohl told The Nation that the circuit court’s ruling “opens the door to that type of behavior, because it dilutes even further any potential recourse that workers have in our legal system…. The corporate legal ‘union avoidance’ profession is reading the decision and advising clients that this is a new opportunity for them.”
“It reeks of obvious foul play,” said Clarence Adams, who was among those who lost their jobs. “It reeks of people having their own agenda.”
The CWA has filed charges with the NLRB accusing Cablevision of illegal union-busting (the NLRB enforces and interprets US private sector labor law). But the union is warning that the DC Circuit decision will inspire more companies to copy Cablevision—and make it easier to get away with it.
In their January ruling, Noel Canning v. NLRB, a three-judge panel from the DC circuit found several of President Obama’s appointments—including those of three NLRB members he appointed in January 2012—to be illegal. At issue were the limits of the president’s authority to make recess appointments. The three judges, all Republican appointees, issued a ruling significantly narrowing that power; a Congressional Research Service report found that under the standard used in the decision, hundreds of appointments made by presidents stretching back to Reagan would have been invalidated. Under a 2011 Supreme Court ruling, the NLRB requires at least three members in order to issue decisions; without the 2012 appointments, it would have lacked a quorum for the past year.
The Noel Canning decision conflicts with rulings in other circuits on the same question, and so the issue appears destined for the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Republicans have urged the NLRB to suspend operations and have proposed eliminating its members’ salaries. The NLRB has refused, noting that the Canning decision technically applies only to a single case. One nursing home company, displeased with an NLRB injunction ordering it to rehire 600 striking workers in Connecticut, petitioned the Supreme Court to override the NLRB because of Canning decision; the Supreme Court has so far declined to weigh in.