Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
For the first time since the New Deal era, the United States could, by the time Labor Day 2013 rolls around, find itself entering into an extended period without either a secretary of labor or a functioning National Labor Relations Board.
The prospects are dire for working people and for the unions that represent them.
But Senate majority leader Harry Reid and his Democratic colleagues have the power to avert the crisis created by Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism. To that end, on Thursday, they took what have been identified as the first steps to adopt a rules change specifying that only 51 votes are required to end a filibuster that has been initiated to block votes on presidential nominees. “We’re headed to changing the rules,” New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall said after a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting where Reid raised the issue. “I didn’t hear anybody speak against it.”
This is not a step that Reid wanted to take. But it the majority leader was left with little choice after McConnell, the Republican minority leader, made it clear that he and his allies would continue to employ an abusive definition of the filibuster to block President Obama's nominees in general — and to labor-related posts in particular.
Obama has selected a well-qualified nominee for secretary of labor: Tom Perez, a former Maryland Department of Labor secretary who has served in the Obama administration as the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. But the Perez nomination has languished without Senate action since May, when it was approved on a 12-10 vote of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The president has, as well, made necessary nominations to fill open positions on the five-member National Labor Relations Board.
One of Obama’s nominees, Mark Gaston Pearce, is a current NLRB board member whose term expires in August. If the Senate does not confirm Pearce and the others, Communications Workers of America union president Larry Cohen argues that the board will be rendered ineffectual.
“The protections that workers fought and died for, already diminished by subsequent legislation and court decisions, will soon disappear if the Senate fails to confirm the president’s nominees before its summer recess,” explains Cohen. “There are only three current members sitting on the five-seat NLRB. The constitutionality of the three recess appointments has been voided by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, and Chairman Mark Pearce’s term will expire in August. If the Senate does not act, we’ll soon be celebrating Labor Day without any labor law. Zero enforcement and no protections for 80 million American workers in the private sector.”