Members of the Communications Workers of America participate in a demonstration, August 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)
San Jose, California—The president of the Communications Workers of America union pegged the likelihood of Senate Democrats changing confirmation rules at “fifty-fifty,” and pledged retribution if such reform fails.
Interviewed before speaking at the annual Netroots Nation conference Friday, CWA President Larry Cohen told The Nation that he believes there’s a majority in the Senate “at this moment” that would vote to change Senate rules so that a minority of senators could no longer permanently block nominees to courts or the executive branch. That majority “is fragile,” said Cohen, “and it is razor thin.”
In recent months, CWA and other labor and liberal groups have mounted a campaign of ads, phone calls and Capitol Hill mobilization aimed at getting nominees confirmed for current or coming vacancies at agencies including the National Labor Relations Board and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “If we don’t have the Democratic majority act like a majority and establish democratic rules on nominations,” said Cohen, “the right wing gets their way: you elect a president who can’t govern.”
The NLRB is charged with enforcing and interpreting most private sector labor law. Since a January DC Circuit Court ruling rejected President Obama’s NLRB recess appointments, dozens of companies have gone to court challenging the agency’s authority to investigate or punish their conduct. Cohen warned that, with Republicans committed to blocking Obama NLRB nominees, any Supreme Court ruling on the recess issue many months away, and the pending expiration of the NLRB members’ terms, “there’s no NLRB” soon unless Senate rules are changed so the president’s recent nominees can be confirmed. While labor law enforcement is “grossly imperfect” anyway, warned Cohen, a crippled NLRB would mean “that management can do whatever they want in terms of workers’ rights.” As The Nation reported, CWA warned after the January 30 termination of twenty-two Cablevision union activists that such alleged law-breaking will become more widespread without a functional NLRB.
Cohen said he believes it’s “a certainty” that Republicans will block NLRB and CFPB nominations when Majority Leader Harry Reid attempts to bring them up for a vote following the immigration bill, at which point CWA wants Democrats to respond by changing confirmation rules. “If this fails,” said Cohen, “those Democratic senators who caused the failure will never get our support. Period.… We will campaign everywhere against them. Where there are primary opportunities, we will take them.” Cohen added that if senators were “prepared to sleep at night” with “no law at all in this country” protecting workers, “they’re of no use to us.”
While its current push is focused on nominations, CWA also played a prominent role in a coalition campaign pushing senate Democrats to restrict the filibuster more broadly at the beginning of the current Congress; those efforts were dealt a defeat when Senator Reid (D-NV) opted for a bipartisan compromise on Senate rules which advocates dismissed as ineffectual. Cohen told The Nation that Reid bears “lots” of responsibility for the current nominations crisis. He said he believes Reid is “leaning towards” changing nominations rules “as long as he can get fifty-one” senators behind it. “My belief is he will lead it,” said Cohen. “If he doesn’t lead it, it will fail.”
Cohen said the coalition’s efforts have so far included a million petition signatures and “tens of thousands of phone calls and fly-ins…but I don’t think people really see the severity of this.” “It’s going to end fine if we get at least a couple million people engaged on a minimum level,” Cohen predicted. “I think it won’t end so well if it’s some quiet decision.”
With the fate of the NLRB looking grim, unions are in deep trouble. Can the labor movement be saved?